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Spokane tribal member, artist challenges images in media

As a teacher, artist and activist, Spokane tribal member Charlene Teters (Slum Tah) challenges portrayals of Indian people as objects, mascots and stereotypes, seeking to create a shift from the dehumanization of native people in pop culture, media and sports.

Charlene Teters
Charlene Teters

“We may feel alone, but we are not voiceless or powerless,” she told participants at the second International Conference on Hate Studies in April at the Northern Quest Resort in Airway Heights.

Charlene, who grew up in Spokane and now teaches art at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., helped found the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media to end denigration of Native Americans as sports mascots and in imagery by sports teams.

In 1989 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, she was disturbed at a basketball game by the performance of a pseudo-Native American dance by a European-American student, portraying the university’s mascot, “Chief Illiniwek.”

Charlene began to protest alone, silently outside athletic events, holding a sign, “Indians are human beings.” Soon Indians across the country joined her in launching a national debate about the appropriateness of Native American imagery in sports and media.

Her efforts led to a movement to eliminate imagery such as tomahawk chops as part of cheers and Indian symbols and mascots.

“If there were a team called the San Diego Caucasians attitudes would change,” she said.

Speaking to the educators and religious leaders gathered for the conference on hate studies, she reminded them, “You are on our ancestral land, a gathering place for people of the river.”

Charlene, who earned an associate degree in 1986 from the Institute of American Indian Arts, completed a bachelor’s in fine arts in 1988 at the College of Santa Fe. She began graduate studies in art at the University of Illinois in 1988, recruited as one of three Native American students.

She expected a university would be a place respecting all peoples, but when she first arrived she saw images of Indians on everything—banks, a clinic, beer and toilet paper. When Marcus, one of the Native American students, challenged images in the student newspaper, he was targeted. His phone rang day and night. He left after two weeks.

A professor telling Charlene and the other student that Marcus had left said: “One little, two little, three little Indians...”

“I decided to keep my mouth shut to finish my degree and leave. I internalized the pain,” she said.

Then she took her two children—in junior high and high school—to a basketball game because the team was in the final four, and they love basketball.

The mascot impersonating an Indian wore a headdress with 90 eagle feathers. Many times feathers touched the ground. When an eagle feather falls to the ground in a powwow, the dancing stops, because the eagle feather is sacred.

Her children, who were traditional dancers, recognized the disrespect and were humiliated. Charlene was sad, because she had worked hard to instill a sense of pride in her children.

I could no longer keep silent,” she said.

After standing outside games with the sign, she was spat on and targeted with phone calls.

Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee, who helped found the Institute for Hate Studies at Gonzaga University, had been monitoring campus newspapers for bigotry. Seeing how the university was targeting her, he called and offered to help.

“If you leave,” he said, “they win.”

Charlene was determined to stay. He helped find people to join her.

Through the struggle, I have met some of the best, most conscientious people,” she said. “It took 20 years, but in 2007 the University of Illinois retired the mascot, although I know it’s still used behind closed doors.

“I went there for an education in art. I used to be shy, but I gained power and built a coalition. I couldn’t have done it by myself, but by putting minds together, we made things happen,” she said.

A national, award-winning documentary, “In Whose Honor,” was produced about her efforts.

After she graduated in 1994 with a master’s in fine arts in painting, Charlene taught two years at Ohio State University, and from 1996 to 2000 edited Indian Artist Magazine and then Native Artists Magazine. Since 1997, she has been a professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). In 2000, she received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from Mitchell College in New London, Conn. She also taught from 2005 to 2007 at California Polytechnical Institute in Pomona.

The IAIA now offers a four-year fine arts degree in contemporary Native American and Alaska Native arts.

Charlene said she is used to being the only native person speaking at conferences on arts, human rights and cultural issues.

“We are still tokens in our homeland,” she said, “but we’re still here and so is our culture.

Our educators were storytellers, in contrast to mainstream educators who have students memorize answers for tests. In our education, we ask questions, hear a story and it’s up to us to find the answers. There is no beginning or end to the stories,” said Charlene.

Her grandmother, who spoke English fluently, told stories in Spokane-Salish. She might begin in English, but then would switch to Spokane.

As a grandmother, I now understand the pain in her voice when she said, ‘My own grandchildren do not understand,’” Charlene said.

Wanting to save her children the attack on Indian identity she experienced in boarding and reservation schools, Charlene’s mother did not teach them to speak Spokane.

In her grandmother’s traditional stories, there were lessons in astrology, geology, morality and life.

The greeting in Spokane-Salish is, “What’s in your heart? How have you been treated today? How have you treated others?”

“It’s hard to be heard as a Native American, because many think we are not here, that we are about the past. Mass media create images of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” Charlene said.

Media demonize and dehumanize Muslims, indigenous people and others. Once media dehumanize, it’s easy for people to hate and do racist acts. I see despair in our young people,” she said.

She hopes that by sharing her experience, she plants seeds.

“To plant seeds is the most revolutionary thing we can do. To open the earth and plant seeds is a powerful act,” she said.

Charlene takes her responsibility as a teacher as a cherished cultural tool to help Native students gain skills to contribute in the society.

For information, call 313-3665 or visit charleneteters.com. Charlene Teters, Studio Arts Core Faculty, 83 Avan Nu Po Rd, Santa Fe, NM 87508
(505) 424-2367 cteters@iaia.edu