As the fall semester starts at universities across the country, students will be rushing to join Panhellenic sororities and fraternities. But some don’t feel comfortable in the Greek system, which has been historically very white, and find themselves faced with a choice: reject the system (and its built-in social network) or work to change it.
Christina Theodorou decided to change it, writes scholar Brian Peters. A member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Theodorou first enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989. She was academically well prepared and ready to succeed but, like many other Native students, felt socially isolated and unwelcome on campus. Disheartened, she left UNC–Chapel Hill for UNC–Charlotte, which was closer to her family home.
“Hoping to connect more on campus [at UNC–Charlotte], Theodorou participated in Panhellenic recruitment, a process where prospective female Greek members rush predominantly white sororities,” writes Peters. She received a “bid” to join a sorority, but chose not to join, in part because sorority representatives had asked inappropriate questions during rush interviews. Did she ride horses? Live in a teepee?
“After rushing and after receiving a bid,” recalled Theodorou, “I actually didn’t accept the bid and stopped the process because the whole experience was so counter and contrary to [being] Native Indian. I was thinking, This is ridiculous, this makes no sense, they don’t know how to judge me.”
Theodorou decided to return to UNC-Chapel Hill in 1992, and once again considered joining a sorority. But with only Panhellenic (traditionally white) or National Pan-Hellenic Council (traditionally Black) sororities on campus, she still couldn’t see herself as part of Greek life.
“Frustrated, isolated, and feeling unaccommodated,” Theodorou sent a letter to eighteen other female Native students. Could they form their own Native sorority, or possibly a book club? She hoped that if they came together as a group, they “could at least support each other and discuss their Native cultures.”
Peters reports that as a result of Theodorou’s initiative,
In the spring semester of 1994 four Native students—Christina Theodorou, Jamie Goins (Lumbee), Shannon Brayboy (Lumbee), and Amy Locklear Hertel (Lumbee/Coharie; previously Amy Locklear)— discussed the formation of a Native sorority. Later known as the Four Winds, a name bestowed on them by a Native elder, the four women established the first historically Native-serving Greek organization in the United States, Alpha Pi Omega.
“With the lowest enrollment and graduation rates in higher education, Native students need the support of institutions of higher education,” writes Peters. The sorority aimed to provide that support.
“Like the black fraternities and sororities, Alpha Pi Omega was meeting a need,” Peters explains. “The Four Winds understood that the college experience was not easy for any student, but the creation of a sorority that met the needs of a particular group of students could be helpful.”
The founding members conducted research and talked with elders in their community before they officially launched. “Through a mixture of prayer, self-reflection, and consultation with Native elders, Alpha Pi Omega was formed in the fall semester of 1994,” Peters writes.
According to Peters, Alpha Pi Omega not only helped Indigenous students feel less alone but helped them succeed academically. The sorority brought tribal traditions to campus, sponsoring powwows and other events that “created environments for Native students to express their tribal culture on campus and increase awareness for non-Native students to learn about them.”
“Native student empowerment, not the creation of another administrative group or process, provided a family environment and supported the students’ need to succeed,” Peters explains.
Alpha Pi Omega soon expanded to other schools in North Carolina and then into other states. “As a sorority based on Native tribal cultures and open to all tribal identities, Alpha Pi Omega meets Native student needs on college campuses,” Peters writes. Holding cultural and social space for Native students on campus, the sorority created a model “for future historically Native American fraternities and sororities to form, develop, and spread to other campuses, providing support for Native students nationally.”