ALBUQUERQUE - When Charlene Teters (Spokane) enrolled in graduate school at the University of Illinois in 1989, her teenage children asked to go to a University basketball game.
They were enjoying the game when at half time a non-Native man dressed in buckskin, beads, paint and a feather headdress ran onto the floor chanting and dancing wildly to music from the college band. He was known as Chief Illiniwek and was the college mascot.
“The chief came out. I’d never seen him before. He came out wearing buckskin, eagle feathers and the fans went into a frenzy yelling. People were shouting ‘the chief, the chief.’ My children were embarrassed and they sunk down in their seats. I saw my daughter try to become invisible. My son tried to laugh. I knew I couldn’t be here and not address that issue,” Teters said in a film about her called “In Whose Honor?”
Teters began a protest. She stood at future games holding a sign reading “Indians are Human Beings Not Mascots.”
“I started to stand out alone. I didn’t know what else to do. I did it for my kids,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t be here and not do anything about it. They know who they are. It was a blow to their self-esteem. They were taught to respect feathers, the chief and dance. Paint is sacred. Dance is sacred. It was reduced to entertainment.”
As she stood in the crowds outside the stadium with the protest sign, people spit on her and threw things at her, she said.
“Our people paid with their very lives to keep what little we have left and that is what I am protecting,” she said. “If you’ve never been taught to respect these things it might not bother you. But if you’ve grown up in the community where these things have meaning it’s going to have that impact on you. I have to protect it for generations to come and for my children,” Teters said in the film
Drawings and cartoon Image of Chief Illiniwek were everywhere around the college town of Champaign, Illinois on trucks, in shops, restaurants and T-shirts.
Teters had moved to Illinois from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she had been a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Santa Fe University of Art and Design. There were only two other Native American students enrolled at the University of Illinois.
Asked the result of her protest of Chief Illiniwek, she said “It started a movement.”
The University of Illinois did away with the Chief Illiniwek mascot in 2007.
In 1989, Teters helped found The National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media to continue her fight. “They have the next generation of leaders there and carry on the work. I have been in this for 30 plus years. When asked to join young people on the front lines of the struggle I do it.”
The Coalition has worked to eliminate other sports mascots at professional teams, colleges, and high schools including the Redskins in Washington, DC which recently announced they would stop using that name for their team.
Teters said she never met Dan Snyder, owner of the Redskins, but she handed out flyers at Redskins games explaining why she objected to the name Redskins.
“We started protests outside of the stadium with just a handful of supporters in 1991-1992. The reaction was hostile as usual spitting, pushing and taunting us with the tomahawk chop.”
The term redskins is especially offensive because it harks back to “a violent historical record of when the US government put a bounty on Native Americans urging people to bring in body parts and collect money,” said Teters.