Charlene Teters: Art and Conviction

Fellow students and future successful artists, take note: Your art career does not simply happen to you. You choose it. Just ask internationally renowned Spokane Indian artist and activist Charlene Teters, who noted recently in our interview: “My art was a vehicle to make my voice bigger.”

Teters, Institute of American Indian Arts professor of art and department chair, was also a student here from 1984 to 1986. An incredibly talented painter who was hungry to learn more and hone her talent, Teters came to Santa Fe from Spokane, Wash., with her two children, ages 13 and 8 at the time. The B.F.A. degree was not yet an option, so after graduating from IAIA, Teters attended the College of Santa Fe (now Santa Fe University of Art and Design) and finished her undergraduate degree. From there, she went on to obtain her master’s degree from the University of Illinois. She was one of three Indigenous students enrolled in 1988. All of them had been heavily recruited by the college and received full funding for their educations.

As Teters recounts it, The U of I had wanted Indigenous students. However, once on campus, it became apparent that the U of I was a hostile environment for its new Indigenous students. The first few weeks of school, these students saw sorority posters advertising the Miss Illini contest. This contest was linked to the students’ mascot, Chief Illiniwek, a central figure in the school’s athletic identity.

For the students and fans, Chief Illini was a source of pride and dignity. Bounding across the football field ahead of the band at halftime, dressed in buckskin, his face painted for war and a full headdress, the audience in the stadium responded to Chief Illini by wearing headdresses of their own, painting their faces and wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the Indian mascot.

Fraternities held buck and squaw contests, Teters says. Everywhere these students turned, “there were posters depicting Indian people as cartoon characters with buck teeth, big bellies, crossed eyes, broken feathers”¦ They were not even thinking these images were linked to a people that were still alive. And they could do this comfortably on this campus because there was no Native population. It was 35,000 mostly white students and if you included graduate and PhD students, 54,000. There were three Native students that came from their communities to this campus.”

After the first few weeks, it became too much and one of the students left. Teters was one of the remaining two.

Teters recounts the dehumanizing acts on campus that had become normalized and accepted over time.

“There was a bar in downtown campus called Home of the Drinking Illini, with a neon sign of a drunken Indian falling down over and over again. And this is where fraternity brothers would go dressed in paper head-dresses and drink, acting out their negative stereotypes.”

For Teters, there was no choice; she had to speak out against the ignorance and cruel acts taking place around her, acts that were directed at her, her family and her ancestors. She began protesting at games, and her artwork became highly political.

Instead of painting, she showed installation work. For one show, she gathered images from pop culture that showed Indian people as one-dimensional, highly glossy figurines and intermixed these images of photos of Indian people that were contemporary. The result was startling and meant to wake up the viewer. Indian people were human beings, alive and well, living their daily lives, not relics from the past or stereotypes.

A documentary of Teters’ experience at the U of I, In Whose Honor details what happened next: the hate crimes, the attempts to run her off campus, the danger her children were put in. Nonetheless, Teters chose to stay. She dug in at the front lines and continued protesting.

She also did not find support and encouragement at the time from fellow contemporary Indigenous artists. “Why are you doing this?”   they asked her, far from the front lines, enjoying their success and financial abundance.

One exception was author Sherman Alexie, who is from the same tribe as Teters; both artists ask challenging question and confront sensitive issues.

“We both got criticized by our local tribal members because there is still this desire to just focus on the good things, the ceremonies, turtle tales,” Teters says. About Alexie, Teters says. “I just adore him. I love what he writes. We’re each other’s biggest fans. He understands that what I’m doing is not always about the pretty things.”

Needless to say, Teters’ art went through a transformation around this time.

“U of I changed me. [Art] was not about product. It was not about what was for sale,” Teters says. No longer interested in art as a pretty object for a pretty price, Teters created work that was not for sale. She wanted, instead, for her installation work to be a ceremony that continued living in the viewer. Teters’ installation work was considered confrontational, but she hoped it would act as a platform for debate, and believes when human beings are drawn into deep discussion, they realize and remember their humanity.

Her images and installation work continue to explore and call attention to the violence against Indian people by the dominant culture, a culture that repeatedly steals the images, sacred objects and ceremonial acts for its own amusement, entertainment and pleasure while ignoring the suffering such acts inflict. Charlene Teters offers an example of artistic excellence, a commitment to conviction and truth, bravery and an intention for healing and wholeness.

After 81 years, in 2007, the U of I expired its mascot Chief Illiniwek. It took 20 years of activism, which began with Teters.

“It’s important, if you’re in that position, that you groom new leaders,” Teters says. “You’re always grooming new people behind you, because if it’s just you, they can get rid of you. But if you groom new leaders it’s always going forward. That’s the responsibility of the leadership.”

Teters’ advice to IAIA students contemplating what kind of artist to be is this:

“Their work needs to be about their time period. It’s powerful when people use their own time period, and their own information because we all have these very powerful stories. So when I see them doing work on their skateboards, I think, ”˜yeah, that’s about their time period.’ It’ll have more guts. It’s more authentic if it’s about their history, their time period. That’s their contribution. Keep moving it forward. I mean, you always get your inspiration from looking back. Looking back to history gives you the heroes and sheroes and you take it forward somehow.”

Fellow students and future successful artists, no matter what you choose: art that confronts, challenges and changes lives or top dollar art that supports you and your family, be keenly aware of the artist you are becoming and that your life, who you are, and your art should never be severed from one other. I hope you all choose the route of heart and courage. I hope that for myself as well.

Teters’ work will part of the upcoming show Agitated Histories at SITE Santa Fe from October 22, 2011 through January 15, 2011. Below is a description of the show from SITE Santa Fe’s website:

“Agitated Histories brings together an international and intergenerational group of artists whose works in a range of media create a dialogue with history. For some of the artists in this exhibition, history is a subject to be challenged and even re-written, while for others it is a source of inspiration and creative energy.”



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