Fight of a Lifetime

Charlene Teters standing in a field wrapped in a blanket.
Charlene Teters is keynote speaker at this year's International Conference on Hate Studies

April 06, 2023
Dan Nailen/Gonzaga University News Service

Charlene Teters was born and raised in Spokane, a member of the Spokane Tribe and graduate of Shadle Park High School. Her path to becoming one of the preeminent activists fighting the offensive use of Indigenous imagery in sports mascots, pop culture and media has taken her across the country over the past 30-plus years since she first found herself in the spotlight for protesting the University of Illinois’ fabricated “Chief Illiniwek” mascot when she was in graduate school there.

On April 21, Teters will take the dais at Spokane Community College as the keynote speaker at the International Conference on Hate Studies, where she will share her address, “We the Invisible People,” and discuss standing up to hate, art as a powerful tool for change and more.

Teters currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is interim dean of the Institute of American Indian Arts and has spent much of her professional and artistic life. Soon, though, she’ll be a permanent resident of the Inland Northwest once again — when her home’s construction on the Spokane Reservation is completed and she returns to retire. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

GU NEWS SERVICE: When you're speaking to a group of academics and students and community members, as you will at this conference, are there certain points that you consistently share?

TETERS: I have a career that has been addressing the use and abuse of our images in pop culture and by the media. In that work, I've been the feature of a couple of documentaries, and I have given testimony before the U.S. Congress. It’s a constant struggle. Wellpinit [High School, on the Spokane Indian Reservation] continues to hang on to the name “Redskins.” So, unfortunately, that's going to be part of what I address. In a way, those of us who work in issues of social justice and are looking at issues of hate, we know that hate plays itself out in many ways in the community. Outside our community and within. So we shouldn't be confused that we are still having the struggle within the community. Whenever you're looking at issues of racial justice or hate, remember not to get confused. Hate plays itself out, and racism plays itself out, in many ways.

You've been active in this fight against racism for many years. Where do you find strength and how do you keep from being frustrated at the lack of progress?

Depending on situations, it can be frustrating. I always try to stay professional in my response when sometimes you want to go outside and scream. We all have our coping mechanisms, but understanding that as human beings there's a whole range of people who are doing this work. We have these struggles, but keep in mind that we're not really doing it so much for us, but to make it better for those in the future.

I did an awful lot of work in my early life with the American Indian Movement, who were some of my early mentors. That would be Vernon Bellecourt, and Michael Haney and Dennis Banks, who stood with me in some of those difficult, very challenging, and sometimes dangerous places. And you just learned you do everything possible within your power while you're here, while you're alive, so that we don't pass on this problem to the next generation to have to deal with. As an educator, I have to have hope, that's why I do this work.

We're grooming the next generation of leaders, so it's also good for them to see the struggle. Nothing changes without struggle.

Reflecting on your years as an activist, what’s been the most surprising aspect of that part of your life?

My whole artwork changed. I went to get an advanced degree in fine arts, and my early work was painting. And it suddenly didn't make sense. So I started to do installation work, I started to do work that helped me process some of the frustration, the anger, the other challenges that you deal with when you do this kind of work. And I often tell my students that we are so lucky that we're artists, because we have an outlet. We can actually process some of this in our artwork, and sometimes they become very powerful statements that make visible some of our struggles that are internal. They become something that people can interact with.

When young activists, or people new to activism, approach you for advice, are there key points you always share with them?

I never know how to answer that one completely because, you know, I didn't ask for this. It just sort of happened to me. And that's kind of what happens to everybody is that they find themselves in a place or in a situation where they just couldn't let this be the norm. And they had to find a way to address it, whether it's in their writing or in their artwork or in their public speaking or whatever. But I have seen people who have gotten so passionate about it, and I worry about their own health.

That's why I say I'm lucky I'm an artist, I can process my stuff so when I'm speaking, I'm not maybe that angry. And understand that we may not break through to that person that we're trying to address this issue to, but we have to do everything we can possible while we're here, and do it with respect because we're dealing with other human beings. And understand that everybody goes through a process.

As a woman, and as a mother and a grandmother, I understand that we have to be somewhat kind in our interactions with other human beings. Although, when necessary, I am the frontline warrior.

The International Conference on Hate Studies takes place Thu-Sat, April 20-22, at the Lair Student Center at the Spokane Community College Campus, 1810 N. Greene St. Registration for this in-person and virtual event is open until April 10; visit the conference website for the full schedule and to register.


There are several events in the days before the International Conference on Hate Studies to explore the history of racism and the ongoing fight for equal rights for all.

April 7, 5 p.m.
"Teaching Exclusion in Nazi Germany and the United States: Antisemitism & Racist Ideology in the Classroom, 1920-1945"
Via Zoom; register at

Western Washington University and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum are co-hosting this presentation on how the educational systems of Germany and the United States adopted racist ideologies to create exclusionary national identities. In Germany, it was to promote antisemitism and Nazi principles; in the U.S. in the same period, it was to use Indian boarding schools to violently assimilate Native American children. Hollie Mackey, a professor at North Dakota State and member of the Northern Cheyenne, will moderate a discussion featuring speakers Margaret Jacobs, the director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska, and Adam Knowles, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Zurich, representing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

April 11, 5:30 p.m.
"Out Front and In the Shadows: History of Antisemitism on College Campuses"
In person, Globe Room, Cataldo Hall; register here

Gonzaga University’s Religious Studies department, Center for the Study of Hate and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum are co-hosting this panel discussion exploring the historical underpinnings of antisemitic tropes and images that permeated higher education in the 1930s and 1940s, and how some still resonate today. Kevin Vander Schel from Religious Studies will moderate a discussion including Religious Studies lecturer Kevin Brown, Political Science professor Laura Brunell, Associate Professor Michael DeLand from Sociology and Criminology — all from GU — and Adam Knowles, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Zurich, representing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

April 20, 2 p.m.
"The Lens of Persecution: Filmed Experiences of Oppression and Resilience in the Pacific Northwest and in Nazi-Occupied Europe during WWII"
In person, Tawanka Hall, Eastern Washington University

Eastern Washington University and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum present this panel examining images and film from the Holocaust, Japanese American incarceration and the displacement of American Indian communities for the construction of the Hanford Nuclear site. Three speakers — Steve Bingo, Abby Lewis and Ann Le Bar — will address how individuals have used cameras to record life in times of great persecution, and the importance of capturing daily life even while abuse and murder are taking place. Jacki Hedlund Tyler moderates.
Explore the 2023 International Conference on Hate Studies