In Whose Honor
General Assembly 2001 Event 3062
Dr. Charlene Teters opened her standing-room-only workshop with a video clip from ABC Evening News with Peter Jennings which aired on 10 October 1997, in which she was featured as "Person of the Week." The clip showed her being interviewed about her activism in the fight against the ongoing use of Indian mascots, and featured many images of these mascots in use.
Elaborating in great detail on the remarks she gave during the General Assembly's (GA's) opening ceremony, Dr. Teters described her background as a Spokane Indian, and the history of her family. She emphasized the significant oppression faced by her forebears, who had to take their culture, their language, and even their names underground at the turn of the century when white authorities came. "My grandparents were forced to choose their new names out of a hat. The choices were only those of biblical names and names of presidents. So my grandmother became Nancy Moses. We call these 'Hat Names.'
"My grandmother was a storyteller," she continued, "and in that time she was forbidden to share the stories or use her own language. Our language best translates our word for 'storytellers' as 'keepers of the sacred truth,' which gives only a small hint of the extreme importance of this role in our culture. It's how we have always communicated our culture to our children, through stories."
"In our way, there is no one answer for everyone. My grandmother would answer questions through lengthy stories, sometimes for hours, and it was up to us to see our own truths in these stories. But because we knew only a little of the old language, we would not understand it all. Seeing our lack of understanding would make my grandmother very sad. She would cry, saying, 'Even my own grandchildren cannot understand.'"
"We lost most of our family members through European childhood illnesses, like measles and diarrhea " she said. "Among the few survivors were my parents." She was given an opportunity to attend the University of Illinois with two other members of the Spokane tribe, and jumped at the chance.
"When we arrived we began to notice these Indian symbols everywhere, and eventually learned that they represented the school's football team, the 'Fighting Illini.' This made us feel very unwanted and strange."
When her family visited her, she tried taking them to a football game, and when the Illini mascot appeared on the field, wearing ninety eagle feathers, her children sunk in their seats. "My son laughed in that way that indicated hurt and embarrassment. You see, I had taught them that in our culture, each eagle feather represents a powerful act of generosity toward the tribe, earned with great sacrifice, and that only a great and powerful tribal elder or politician would be entitled to wear such a thing.
"The next game, for the sake of my children, I decided to stand outside the stadium and protest the use of the mascot, with a sign that read, 'American Indians are Human Beings Not Mascots.'" During this protest she was subjected to terrible abuse: she was spat upon; things were thrown at her; threats and insults and profanity were directed toward her. In the ensuing days, weeks and months as she persisted in her protest she began to receive an increasing number of very threatening phone calls, which sometimes her children heard.
In the midst of the threats, just when she was beginning to conclude that she needed to give up and take her children and herself away from the danger, she received in quick succession two supporting phone calls. The first was from Ken Stearns of the American Jewish Committee, who offered immediate assistance in the form of nearby supporters who could help her stay safe. He also became a strong political supporter, with a great deal of experience in fighting hate crimes. "If you leave, they win, but if you are willing to stay we will help you," was his message. She decided to stay.
The other phone call was from a Lakota man, Tim Giago, of Indian Country Today who also offered tremendous advice and assistance.
Not too long after that, Kwame Ture, known to many as Stokely Carmichael, the African American civil rights leader, came to her campus to speak. During a campus meeting at which he asked to see all of the civil rights activists prior to his speech, he saw her and was already familiar with her struggle. "Give this sister ten minutes of my time at the rally!" he said. Though shy, she agreed to speak, but had to deliver her address with eyes closed to get the words out. After her ten minutes of speaking, she opened her eyes to a thunderous standing ovation. She credits Kwame Ture, who said, "The struggles of people of color are linked," with helping her get her start. Kwame Ture died in November of 1998 at the age of fifty-seven.
Now she says she has become a storyteller like her grandmother. She talks to anyone who will listen, and to many who refuse to hear, of the misappropriation of her culture and that of her Native American brothers and sisters. "Mascots like the Illini or Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians have become normalized, part of the American culture. Mascots give permission to dehumanize."
She decried the use of the name "Redskin" as a sports team name in nation's capital, reminding us of that word's origins: "Redskin was the shorthand name for a body part like a scalp or hands, of Native American people who were slaughtered to collect bounty payments. The symbol used to mark the locations where bounty hunters could collect payments was the decapitated head of a Native American, not unlike those symbols often used by sports teams."
Reported by Dwight Ernest.