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The Carletonian

Native American activist discusses culture, history of Native Americans

<e is genocide not just outside, but also inside the walls of Carleton,” said Juni Muskrat ‘10 as she introduced Charlene Teters, an activist, artist, teacher, writer and founding board member of the Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, who explores the plight of her people’s ethnicity as portrayed in pop culture.

Teters expressed her pain at the patterns of history by which Natives have become “tokens in their own homeland.” At the turn of the twentieth century, her people experienced a disastrous cultural demise. Laws banned them from their native speaking language, and for a culture that valued oral tradition and storytelling, this was a death-sentence. Her grandmother, an inspiration to her, was an activist in her own way and transmitted wisdoms through stories in the local Spocan but often felt the shame that her “own grandchildren cannot understand” her. Teters said that these laws stripped them of their pride and that taking away the stories from a culture is like erasing the culture itself.

Teters traced the current predicament of her people back to their recent history. Children were forced into boarding schools where cultural eradication took place. They weren’t allowed to identify with any elements of their cultural identity, so much so that even their names were picked out of chits from a hat. Children began to “hate who they are” and it is only by virtue of brave ancestors who endeavored to transmit the culture that it still exists in pockets of the country.

The inspiration for Teters’s activism began when she was recruited to study at the University of Illinois and the prospect of being of the first generation to pursue an advanced education excited her. Unfortunately, Teters’s “dream slowly turned into a living nightmare,” as it was here, placed out of her accustomed cultural context, that she witnessed such a massive degradation of her people used in symbols for “cheap entertainment.” Including Teters, there were three natives out of 36,000 students on campus. And there were fraternity and sorority houses where participants of beauty pageants and college games enacted negative stereotypes of Indians. A bar down the street sported the icon of a big-bellied red-skinned cartoon with a broken nose and a huge mug of beer. And the worst part was that students thought it a great honor to venerate Indians by using their religious symbols this way.

Once, Teters took her children to a sports event. She warned them to ignore the mascots and just enjoy the game. But as soon as the mascots took center stage, there was no ignoring them. One man was dressed as an Indian chief wearing 90 eagle feathers trailing behind him. For native people, these feathers are so sacred that should even one of the feathers from the regalia brush the ground the whole ceremony halts. Teters sat and watched as this mascot dragged these feathers all around and her children sank in their seats. Her reaction to the exhibitionism is summed up: “American Indians are human beings, not mascots…What is so central to our life has been reduced to half-time entertainment.”

When Teters took a stand against this, she received many threatening phone calls. Amidst the tension and racism, she found a few allies in an American-Jewish society from New York and from a reporter in New York City. The reporter told her, “If you leave, they win.” He used his position as a writer to strengthen her case and brought it to the notice of a charismatic leader of the African-American movement at the time (popularly known as Carmichael), who honored her with an invitation to a meeting and a speech before 3,000 people. Utterly inexperienced and docile back then, Teters was nervous to get on stage. Carmichael turned to her and said, “If not you, then who?” and she closed her eyes “and the words came from somewhere within.” Teters says, “It was this experience that changed how I chose to tell my story.”

On the subject of education, Teters shares that the history and culture of the natives is not generally taught at school. Teters opines, “Never reinforce stereotypes of people. Instead, education through art and history should uplift the native people so that they can embrace their identity.” She stresses the power of education and believes that nothing should replace it, least of all a pop culture that has perverted history and successfully replaced the rich mythology of a people with Hollywood’s interpretation of it. Not only that, she states, “it is essential to know the history of the people whose land we occupy.”

Although Teters speaks against the use of Natives as mascots, she ends with a thought for everyone- “If you consider yourself an anti-racist, this is your issue too.”

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