“Whats in your heart?” said Charlene Teters to her audience at Cal State San Bernardino.

The Native American multimedia artist, educator and activist was about to take the more than 80 attendees at the Santos Manuel Student Union theater on an audio and visual journey talking about her experiences as a child, student, parent, activist protesting the use of Native Americans as sports mascots, and artist, sharing images of her multimedia artwork.

Teters, who is a Spokane tribal member in Washington State, said the phrase is a translation of Spokane Salish.

“It is a greeting that we say my name and ‘Whats in your heart.’ To remember that our languages are blessings, it’s embedded in that greeting,” Teters said. “It’s a cultural lesson to remind you to look within, to look within. How have you been treated and how are you treating others.”

Teters had come to speak at the campus and the Palm Desert Campus as the inaugural speaker of Cal State San Bernardino’s Native American Speaker Series. The series was created to illuminate the outstanding achievements of distinguished Native Americans in the arts, media, culture and academia, said CSUSB President Tomás D. Morales, who introduced Teters.

“We are proud to establish this series as part of our continuing commitment to diversity, providing access to quality education and cultural resources that promote understanding and inclusivity,” Morales said.

“We are privileged to have Charlene Teters as the inaugural speaker,” Morales said. “For 30 years, she has actively fought the use of Native American mascots and other imagery in sports. She is a founding board member of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media. The television documentary ‘In Whose Honor’ focuses on her efforts involving the University of Illinois, its mascot and accompanying issues of racism, stereotypes, minority representation and the effect of mass-media imagery.”

As Teters spoke, images of her family, friends, protests and her artwork were projected on a large screen.

Teters grew up in Spokane and later attended the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but she said she went away to school not for the education, but to escape domestic violence.

“When we go to school it’s not always about getting an education. It wasn’t for me when I went to school. It was really about getting away from a dangerous situation. I was a victim of domestic violence. For me going to school was getting to a safe place and far, far away from Washington State to New Mexico.”

Teters, who blossomed as an artist at the IAIA, said that much of the artwork she was doing at that time “was about reclaiming my identity as a Native woman from that violence that happened in my home.”

After graduating in 1986 with an associate degree from the IAIA, she then attended the College of Santa Fe, where she was awarded a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1988. That same year she began attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one of three Native American students recruited to attend the university’s art and design department.

Teters said they didn’t ask what the university’s mascot was. They would have learned about Chief Illiniwek, the university’s mascot portrayed by a student to represent the Illiniwek.  

“Who would think you would need to ask that question when looking for a university or college to go to,” Teters said. “Because all people’s culture should be respected wherever you go to college, wherever you go to for an advance degree.”

In the first few weeks of the term, Teters and the others saw sorority and fraternity activities and the negative stereotypes and symbols used to represent Native Americans. They saw one sorority, which held an event where they put on paper headdresses. There was a bar called home of the “Drinking Illini” where they had a neon cartoon Indian falling down drunk, Teters said.

“The cartoon Indian had a big belly and an exaggerated sized nose. It was a place where the fraternity brothers would put on their regalia to put on the negative stereotypes of the Native American people,” Teters said.

Marcus, one of the Native American students from the Osage Nation, left after two weeks.  

Teters and the other remaining Native Americans learned of Marcus’ departure from one of the professors that recruited them. The professor told them by singing, “One little, two little, three little Indians...”

“There was only two left, only two left,” Teters said. “And he laughs because he thinks that’s funny. But really, that nursery rhyme is about genocide. It was really devastating for the two of us that he would break it to us in that way.” 

“We were told to keep our mouths shut, get your degree and get out,” Teters said. “And often in this situation, Native people are just told to shut up, don’t respond to it. But what happens is you internalize it and when you internalize it, it does harm you.”
Teters said she tried to internalize it, but when she saw how it was affecting her two children, “that’s when I could not be in this community and not address it.”

She had taken her two children to a basketball game. Their team was in the final four.

She tried to prepare her son and daughter, telling them that they would see people wearing paint and people with tomahawks. It was uncomfortable for them, but the turning point was at halftime at the performance of a pseudo-Native American dance by a European American student portraying “Chief Illiniwek.” The student wore a headdress filled with eagle feathers that touched the ground as he danced.

Teters’ son, who was a traditional dancer, watched it and began to sink in his seat.

“He was trying to laugh. As a parent, you recognize that laugh. They’re laughing, but they are trying to hide a pain,” Teters said.

Both of her children were sinking in their seats, embarrassed and humiliated as the crowd around them cheered loudly at what seemed like a frenzy.

“We worked so hard to instill a sense of pride in our children as to who they are,” Teters said. “When you work that hard to instill a sense of pride in your children and they see it denigrated like that, then what do you do?”

That was the turning point for Teters.

“I can’t be here and not say something. So the next game is where I had a sign, a pitiful sign that said ‘American Indians are human beings, not mascots.’”

Teters initially thought it was a one-time action, but it was the beginning of a journey. She became targeted with hateful phone calls as she continued her protests of the mascot.

But she did receive support for her protests. One of the supporting calls came from Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee, who was writing a document “Bigotry on Campuses.” He was looking at incidents of bigotry and hate on campuses and then looking at the responses by the administration. Often they did nothing, which escalated the incidents and was making the situations more dangerous.

Teters told Stern she was thinking of leaving. People were driving by her house, leaving things on her lawn, putting things in her mailbox. She said she was not feeling safe in her community.

Stern bluntly told her, “If you leave, they win.”

She stayed and continued her protests outside sporting events.

Stern wrote articles to educate the community to understand and support Teters’ protests and show she wasn’t a lone voice on the campus. From there she received support from various Native Americans and from Kwame Ture, also known as Stokely Carmichael, a prominent socialist organizer in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the global Pan-African movement.

Ture came to the campus to speak at an anti-racism rally. He knew of her struggle and urged her to speak at the rally. Fighting her reluctance to speak publically or be the center of attention, Teters closed her eyes and spoke for 10 minutes. When she finished, she opened her eyes to see a standing ovation.

Ture addressed the crowd telling them that this was their issue too.

“If this is an issue for Native American people, then this is an issue for you,” Ture told them. “There’s no reason to stand back and let their culture die. And if you consider yourself an anti-racist then this is your issue too.”

She said that’s what really turned around the struggle at the campus and led to the creation of the coalition for new tradition.

The mascot was eventually retired after nearly 20 years.

But Teters has not stopped. She continues her protests outside sporting events and other venues, protesting the use of Native Americans as mascots and other negative stereotypes.

The Native American Speaker Series at CSUSB will feature speakers from diverse tribal backgrounds who share a common commitment to advocating for Native people, creating opportunities for tribal communities, advancing social justice, and supporting the rights of Indigenous people, said Vincent Whipple, director of the university’s Office of Tribal Relations, which implemented the program.

To celebrate the event, prior to Teters’ talk, there were performances of traditional Native American songs of the Great Plains and the Midwest, and local bird songs from local peoples such as the Santos Manuel Band of Mission Indians and a dance performance.

Teters, who is academic dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts, has also held positions at the Ohio State University and as the Hugh O. LaBounty Endowed Chair at Cal Poly Pomona.

Teters established the Racial Justice Office at the National Congress of American Indians and is a founding board member of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media (NCRSM). 

Teters has held solo exhibitions of her work since 1992. She was the first artist-in-residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her awards include the Allen House Memorial Award / New Mexico Governors Award, Person of the Week in 1997 for ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and the Chalmers Memorial Award from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Teters has a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois and an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Mitchell College, New London, Connecticut. Additional information about Teters can be found on her website at charleneteters.com.

For more information on the Native American Speaker Series and Cal State San Bernardino, contact the CSUSB Office of Strategic Communication at (909) 537-5007 and visit Inside CSUSB.