A "chief" no more: the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign retired its "Illiniwek" mascot in 2007 after decades of pressure from activists like Charlene Tester. Photo: soundfromwayout
Notes from Indian Country
She stood tall and proud before it was fashionable
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)
Charlene Teters is a Spokane Indian from Washington State. She is also considerate, kind and courageous. In other words, she is a wonderful woman.
Imagine if you will a scene that took place more than 30 years ago on the campus of the University of Illinois. A young graduate student stands alone in front of the football stadium holding a sign decrying the use of Chief Illiniwek as a mascot for the school.
As the crowds head into the stadium some of then throw cardboard coffee cups and wadded up pieces of paper at her. One flips a burning cigarette at her while an angry white woman spits on her. They are insulting and besmirching a real Indian to protect and retain their fake Indian.
But Char stands her ground and as she listens to the vile insults pour down her eyes fill with tears. Not long after this I got a phone call at the newspaper from Char. She said, “Tim, I read some of the things you wrote about mascots and I need your advice. It is getting so bad here that I am ready to just drop out of school.” I said, “Charlene, I have been getting copies of articles and letters about your courageous stand and I fully support you. If you walk away they will win.”
She laughed a little and then simply said, “Thanks.” And she went back out there to the stadium and endured more abuse.
A few years later she called and said that several other Indians, including Vernon Bellecourt and Michael Haney were going to walk with her in a procession to the football stadium carrying signs of protest and she asked if I would join them. I assured her I would.
Sometimes it is hard to separate one’s self from being a professional journalist to an advocate, but in this case I went to Champaign, Illinois, as a newspaper reporter and an advocate.
I visited with the protestors as they formed ranks and met Bellecourt, Haney and Teters for the first time. I trailed along with my camera and notepad at the ready as the walk began to the stadium. The cars began to drive past with drivers and passengers began throwing the finger at the marchers and as we neared the stadium cigarette butts, beer cans and debris began to pelt the protestors. One group of Illiniwek supporters was already in the stadium and somehow had managed to bring a large vat of hot water to the top with them. They were about to dump it on us as we walked below the stadium wall but an alert police officers spotted them and prevented this from happening.
Char had provided me and the protestors with tickets to the game so we walked into the stadium with banners flying to a chorus of hoots, boos and profanity. “Go back to the reservation you f- - -ing Indians” echoed through the stadium. We stayed until half-time just to watch Chief Illiniwek prance out on the field dressed in full Indian regalia doing a dance that was more vaudeville than Indian. The crowd cheered until they saw the protestors waving their banners and then the cheers turned to boos. Now here is where irony entered the picture.
Protesting mascots was so new that when officials at the University of Illinois called the Superintendent of the BIA at Pine Ridge and the Tribal Chairman and asked if they would furnish Illiniwek with an authentic Sioux costume they scrambled around had one made and sent it to the university. So here we were protesting against the white boy dressed in authentic Sioux regalia furnished by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. As the national protests against Illiniwek grew my good friends Anthony Whirlwind Horse, BIA Super, and Joe American Horse, Tribal Chair, regretted making that decision.
Thanks to the determination and courage of one Indian woman, Chief Illiniwek was eventually removed as the mascot of the University of Illinois much to the chagrin and hate filled rhetoric of his staunch supporters. And Charlene Teters never had to stand all alone protesting because after that she was joined by thousands.
Char and I have continued our fight against using and degrading Indian people for America’s fun and games. Bellecourt and Haney have both passed away as has one of the other major protestors, Russell Means. As we have continued to educate a mostly ignorant America we have won some battles and have lost some, but the fight goes on.
What brought me to the battle besides Char? An article written by Doug George, Mohawk, for the Akwasasne Notes in the 1970s about mascots and how they degraded American Indians. And finally while watching an NFL game between the Washington R-Words and the 49ers and observing the Washington fans paint a pig red, place feathers on its head and then chase it around the football field. My thoughts immediately went to; what if they had painted that pig black, and put an Afro wig on it; would African Americans consider that an honor? Of course not. Mimicking and degrading any human being is an insult to their dignity.
I just wanted my readers to know that it has been a long, hard battle and with this column I honor Charlene Teters, a courageous Indian woman who though oftentimes beaten down and discouraged has never lost sight of her goal. Bravo Char!
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He holds 3 honorary doctorate degrees and was inducted into three Hall of Fames including the Native American Journalists Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org