By Guest Contributor Megan Red Shirt-Shaw
When I first stepped onto the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, I vowed I would never join a sorority. I had seen the process happen before – girls were made to parade in the streets during rush and at the time, I could think of nothing less mortifying. Yet when my group of girlfriends decided to rush (and I realized I might be friendless for a week), I found myself standing outside during rush in a line of girls wearing a dress in the Philadelphia slush.
I was skeptical throughout. I felt ridiculous coming into every house with a line full of girls waiting to talk to me. The houses were perfectly polished – immaculate, really – and I had the same conversation over fifty times. Where was I from, did I like the punch, I like your shirt, I like your dress, I like your face, on to the next girl. I continued to wonder throughout whether or not I would feel like any of these places were right for me. The thought of peppy girls and peppy events – I couldn’t wrap my head around it. But then I walked into a house called Sigma Kappa.
It wasn’t an instantaneous love affair and I don’t know if it was ever easy. I didn’t bop into the house with a “feeling” but found myself talking to girls who were much like me – English majors, people who cared about art, about music. Out of pure coincidence, I wore a bird necklace to one of the rounds and sisters thought it was “cute” how badly I wanted SK because I was wearing a dove – really, I just liked birds and I realized that even in their pep and prep – that I also liked these girls. On bid night, I joined a pack of girls who I had never seen before and walked to the Sigma Kappa house. I pledged and joined and was a sister in that sorority for all four years of undergrad. In my sophomore year, I became co-chair of Natives at Penn, the Native American student group on campus. I would go to Sigma Kappa chapter and announce news about our powwow and the United Minorities Council.
Sorority sisters came to the first and second powwow that we put together over my junior and senior years and I shared conversations with girls about who I was and what I identified with as Oglala Lakota. I was interviewed in the Daily Pennsylvanian and they asked me what it was like to be a minority in a sorority. I told them it had been a positive experience because what I can say assuredly is that it almost always was. I could never shower rainbows over the girl drama that ensued, or the dragging of feet that sometimes came with attending chapter or events – but there were also incredible friendships and memories that helped to build my undergraduate experience. I will always be proud of that.
I opened the news today to find the headline “UNCC Apologizes for Sigma Kappa Redface Act, but Sorority Remains Mum” lighting up my computer screen. The repercussions with the sisters of Sigma Kappa UNCC and their “redface” getups extend beyond their own campus. This extends into my own past, present and future in ways that I’m sure the girls of that particular chapter don’t understand. It took a lot for me, Native or not, to join a Greek organization and while there are days that were prouder than others – I went through four years meeting incredible friends through the Greek system. Whether or not I would have spent a weekend outside New York with my sorority sister’s family deciding on my own career choices, whether or not I would always have somewhere to crash in Chicago and whether or not I would have spent every one of her birthdays with an incredible soon to be doctor – entirely depended on joining Sigma Kappa.
For my younger sister who will be applying to college in the fall, I want to be able to tell her that joining a sorority is cool for us winyan (women, in Lakota). I want my niece to know that if someday Greek life feels like the right choice for her, she can stand in the sleet and the rain and wear an uncomfortable dress and make that decision for herself. I never want that decision to be made by sorority sisters on another campus who promote intolerance for girls like them and girls like me.
Were there girls on my own campus who dressed up as Native Americans for Halloween? Yes. Was it an incredible feeling when another sister came to me asking about conversations surrounding having a “Cowboys and Indians” themed party a year after I had graduated? How it was stopped in its tracks because of their understanding of everything I had taught them? Absolutely. Should it take a Native girl joining the sorority chapter for these things to be acknowledged and identified? Absolutely not.
On behalf of other Native American girls who stepped out of their comfort zone and to those who someday will too in order to join the Greek system, I implore and encourage the Sigma Kappa chapter and Nationals to apologize to the UNCC Native American Student Organization for promoting “Redface” and war-paint. Pocahontas has never been a reflection of who I am as a Native woman and it is not a reflection of contemporary Indigenous people today. As young Natives, we have a right to stand our ground and protect what makes us proud to be who we are – which was something I was always comfortable doing within my chapter of Sigma Kappa. I cannot imagine being a soon to be Native freshman at UNCC and seeing those women promoting cultural appropriation – it makes me very sad to see this coming from girls who, if we had been at Penn or UNCC together, might have, been my “sisters.” That is not and never could be the sisterhood I came to know.
Megan Red Shirt-Shaw graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 with a Bachelors in English (Creative Writing focus). She is Oglala Lakota Sioux. After graduation, she worked as an admissions counselor for Penn, a College Relations Associate at the nonprofit QuestBridge, and now as a partnerships manager for the test prep company Catalyst Prep. She loves living in the Bay Area, learning about projects for Indigenous youth and the idea that a college education opportunity can change one’s trajectory forever. Her favorite phrase her mother ever taught her in Lakota is “Weksuye, Ciksuye, Miksuye” meaning “I remember, I remember you, Remember me.”