The University Record, January 25, 1999

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Teters uses art to fight racism in sports and media

By Rebecca A. Doyle

“People are playing with symbols that are central to our religion,” Charlene Teters said, explaining her fight against the use of Native American images in collegiate and professional sports. “Ignorance is our biggest enemy. We need to deal with very, very basic issues before we can be heard.”

Teters, founding member of the board of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media and a Spokane American Indian, became involved in the fight against the use of an American Indian as a mascot when she arrived at the University of Illinois campus in 1988 and took her children to a basketball game at the school. The Fighting Illini feature the fictional Chief Illiniwek, whose half-time antics include a dance that was billed as a genuine native dance.

Teters, watching her son trying to laugh and her daughter cringing in her seat, vowed to fight the use of American Indian images as entertainment, not only on college campuses, but also across the nation. She has used her art and speaking abilities to try to teach people everywhere that to use American Indian images, objects, culture and spiritual ways for entertainment is racist.

“There is no acceptable level of racism,” said Teters in her presentation on “Mascots and Motifs: Negotiating the Images of Native Americans and Popular Culture” on Jan. 16.

People often argue that to have a national sports team named after them should be considered a great honor. But Teters says that reducing the tribal leadership position of chief to a mascot and then displaying that mascot on clothing and trinkets to be sold “does not feel like honor or respect to us.” The chief, she noted, is the highest political position in any tribe and American Indians have great respect for their chiefs. Native Americans do not feel welcome at the stadium or on campuses where that respected figure is portrayed as a grinning caricature—Cleveland Indians and their mascot Chief Wahoo—or where the team name evokes a deeply painful image to American Indians—Washington Redskins.

Teters explained to her audience that when American Indians were at war with the European settlers on their continent, bounty was paid for dead Indians. “And they would bring them in by the wagonload,” she said, “to be counted.”

“But soon, there were too many to bring by wagon, and so they cut off the heads of the Indians and brought in the heads.

“And then they killed more, so many that it was a hardship to bring in even all the heads. So they brought in the skins.”

That, she said, is when the derogatory term “redskin” began. To have a sports team named after what is so painfully associated with mass killings of their people is the worst kind of racism. Using the head in a logo design the way the Cleveland Indians do also brings the pain of remembered and, Teters says, ongoing genocide against American Indian peoples.

Although her fight against the dancing and cavorting mythical Chief Illiniwek has to date been unsuccessful, many high school and college sports teams have changed their names so they won’t offend Native peoples. Eastern Michigan University changed its name from the Hurons to the Eagles in 1991.

But pro sports, with millions of dollars tied into merchandising agreements, have more to lose and are less likely to make the leap to a new image.

“Meanwhile the dehumanizing of American Indians goes on,” Teters said. “They are wearing feathers, painting their faces and chanting, using our history as entertainment and deflating the self-esteem of our future leaders.”