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Honoring Women: Charlene Teter

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WELLPINIT, Wash. – Charlene Teter, a self-described “shy person,” has come full circle. While the traditionally raised Spokane woman was not looking for confrontation, she ended up taking a leadership role in the battle against degrading school mascots.

Teter has carved a name and reputation seemingly in contrast to her early years. She was raised in Spokane, Wash. but spent most weekends on the reservation with her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother, Nancy Campbell, was a herbologist from the Moses clan and Teter’s aunts and uncles were also medicine people. “I went to Medicine Dances in the wintertime and those contacts very much instilled the values of traditional people, what it is to be a Native person and your responsibilities to your family and community,” she said.

After graduating from high school she enrolled at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.

“At that time my circle of friends were all artists; George Flett, Bruce Wynne and George Hill among others. The transition was easy because I was coming from an Indian community in Washington to an Indian community in Santa Fe where I was surrounded by Native people. I was a shy person in those days and not looking for confrontation. Many of the attributes were culturally instilled.”

She graduated from IAIA, gaining confidence as an artist and developing leadership skills as well. Two years later she received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the College of Santa Fe. She was then, in 1988, recruited to the University of Illinois along with two other Native students. “I wanted to teach art and needed a master’s degree to teach. I went with a great deal of hope, proud to be there, the first in my family and community to pursue an advanced degree.”

“That dream very soon turned into a nightmare because this community was using an Indian as its mascot,” she said. “I didn’t go there to start trouble. I went there to get a degree.”

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“There was no Native American student organization, no Native faculty, no Native community. What we found was that we were the community. We started to notice cartoon Indians on everything.” She went on to describe the stereotypes she saw, cartoon Indians, paper headdresses, the Miss Illini Squaw contest. “It doesn’t make you feel very welcome or very comfortable if you’re a Native person.” She saw the impact the stereotypical mascots had on young people, the erosion of their self esteem.

She remained at the school for three years and received her master’s degree. “That period was the whole reason the involvement with school mascots happened. I didn’t look for it, it just sort of happened. That’s how I started it and how that movement has continued to this day.”

Teter’s activities at UI led her to begin working for the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C. in 1991. Many schools were going through the same mascot debate and she was asked to respond to their questions and put together a workshop for the national conference. That led to a vote favoring a resolution to ask schools to move away from the use of Indians as mascots.

Teter returned to IAIA to teach and she’s remained there pretty much ever since except from 1992 – ’95 when she was a visiting faculty member at Ohio State University. This year she’s the endowed chair at Cal Poly Pomona. “It’s pretty cool!” she laughed. “After this year I’ll return to IAIA and resume teaching painting and drawing.”

She still receives calls to speak on the subject of mascots and travels across the country to speak at schools.

That whole episode changed her style of painting. Previously her paintings “celebrated the strengths of the keepers of the culture, the women,” she said. The frustration and anger caused by the mascot subject made her work more politically charged. “Doing those early paintings didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at that time.”

“I’ve started to do that a little bit again [paint to honor women] and it’s nice. It feels good.”