"Rosa Parks of American Indians"
Visits Asheville November 12-15, 1998
When Rosa Parks sat down in the white section of that Montgomery bus
in 1955, she became a teacher. She taught a nation and a world about an
obvious injustice to which no one had paid much attention. Why should an
American citizen who is black have to sit in the back of a bus? Today in
everyone's hindsight Rosa Parks is a hero. It seems so clear, so right, so
When Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian graduate student in art at the
University of Illinois, stood outside a football game holding a sign that read
"Indians Are Human Beings", she, too, became a teacher. She taught that
American Indian sports mascots such as "Chief Illiniwak" at the University of
Illinois denigrate and stereotype American Indians in ways that are harmful
to Indians and non-Indians alike. Ms. Teters became nationally known
through the PBS documentary that tells this story entitled "In Whose
Ms. Teters gave life to the movement across the nation, a movement to
eliminate a practice as offensive to American Indians as requiring black
citizens to sit in the back of the bus was to African Americans. Like Rosa
Parks' struggle, victory has not come immediately and, in fact, victory is still a
work in progress. Despite over 115 colleges and universities eliminating
American Indian mascots and despite public schools systems like Los Angeles
and Dallas doing the same, resistance to chance is extreme revealing far more
prejudice than one could imagine. Years from now we will all look back and
wonder why it was so hard to accomplish something so clearly decent.
Buncombe County, including its main city Asheville, in mountainous
western North Carolina has been embroiled in a controversy over the
American Indian mascot at Clyde A. Erwin High School for nearly two years.
The Buncombe County Native American Intertribal Association has been
pushing to eliminate the Indian "Warrior" mascot for male sports teams and
the "Squaw" mascot for the female sports teams.
Because of the controversy and other issues, school administrators
realized that the system needed to address issues of diversity in a more
forthright way. While the School Board has not eliminated the offensive
mascots as yet, Buncombe County school administrators have moved to
improve diversity awareness and education in the system by working with the
Asheville-based Center For Diversity Education to develop workshops
and curriculum improvements to address issues of diversity, including
American Indian culture and contemporary life.
While the Intertribal Association concentrates on community organizing
and the Center for Diversity Education concentrates on curriculum education,
the two organizations have come together to bring to Asheville in November
1998 the woman who has been called the "Rosa Parks of American Indians",
Coming during local celebrations of Native American History Month,
the purpose of Ms. Teters' visit is two-fold: to educate the wider community
about Indian culture and stumbling blocks to education for and about
Indians; and, through this process, to inspire the community to put greater
meaning into its 1997 All-American community designation by exhibiting
respect for the community's American Indian citizens.
Ms. Teters will be in Asheville from Thursday November 12 until
Sunday November 15, with a major address at UNC-A on Thursday evening.
At this event, Ms. Teters will be introduced by Mr. Gregory Richardson,
Director of the NC Commission of Indian Affairs. Ms. Teters, who is Senior
Editor of Indian Artist magazine, will be coming from Sante Fe, New Mexico
with her husband Don Messec who documents her meetings with video and
still photography. Through Mr. Messec's work, the visit becomes useful in
education efforts across the country. His documenting of Ms. Teters'
activities was the basis for a PBS documentary entitled "In Whose Honor?"
about Ms. Teters and her efforts to change the mascot at the University of
Illinois and elsewhere throughout the nation.
In addition to the major address Thursday night, for which Renewal
Credits for teachers is being sought, Ms. Teters will meet with students, school
administrators, local media, and American Indians living in the region during
a full schedule of events on Friday and Saturday.
Coming at a critical time in how the community responds to American
Indian requests concerning high school mascots, Ms. Teters' visit is a rare
opportunity for Asheville and western North Carolina to put local concerns
into a national context in a way that educates the community about American
Indian culture and celebrates the importance of respecting that culture.