Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Charlene Teters

Route 66 Revisited: “It Was Only an Indian”(detail); 1999; Multi-media installation; Photo courtesy of the artist

By Michelle McGeough

“Installations are more a powerful way to make statements about how my people    are used as objects. I don’t make art that people can buy and take home with them. Instead my art is a forum through which I can make people address the issues I see as important.”[1] —Charlene Teters

For Charlene Teters, art is not about creating objects of beauty, but rather art is a way to communicate ideas, stimulate conversation, and create change. Born on the Spokane Nation Reservation in Washington State, Teters has distinguished herself as an activist, artist, educator, and writer in a career that spans over two decades. Her formal training includes a M.F.A. from the University of Illinois, a B.F.A. from the College of Santa Fe and an A.F.A. from the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she is currently a painting instructor. In 2000, Teters was the recipient of an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Mitchell College in New London, Connecticut.

As a graduate student at University of Illinois in 1989, Teters brought national attention to the inappropriate use of Native American symbols and in particular the use of Native Americans as mascots by both professional and college sports teams. Teters describes herself as a reluctant activist, yet her multimedia installations, writings, and lectures challenge dominate narratives by exposing how popular culture and negative stereotypes continue to reinforce the racist notions of manifest destiny still active in the American psyche. Teters’s thought-provoking installations, Route 66 Revised: “It was only an Indian” (1999), Baseball and Playing Indian (2002), and Home of the Braves (2003) bombard the viewer with imagery and objects from popular culture. She utilizes these American icons to demonstrate how popular culture normalizes racism and dehumanizes Native American people. Teters’s campaign to eliminate racist symbols that degrade and dehumanize American Indians and Alaska Natives led to the founding of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. She also established the Office of Racial Justice for the National Congress of Native Americans. Her struggle to eliminate racist stereotypes is featured in two documentaries: In Whose Honor? (1997) and False Traditions, False Idols (1994). Her monumental earthwork structures explore America’s collective history revealing an alternative perspective that is often silenced and made invisible.  Teters’s American Holocaust (1992) and Mound, To the Heroes (1999), make visible the desecration of Native American burial sites, a practice that, according to Teters, continues because of contemporary American society’s failure to see Native American people as more than the constructed caricatures produced by pop culture.

In 1999, Teters exhibited in the Third International Biennial, SITE Santa Fe. The venue and her installations Obelisk: To the Heroes and Mound brought her to the attention of international curators and marked a turning point in her career. The following year she was invited to Belgium’s Over the Edge: The Corners of Ghent and EV=A 2000, Friends and Neighbors, an exhibition hosted by Limerick City Gallery in Ireland. In 2003, Teters’s work was included in Only Skin Deep,  an exhibition co-curated by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis that explored the evolution of race and the American identity through the photographic lens.

[1] John Villani, “Teter, Munoz Open at CCA with Powerful Statements,” Pasatiempo, New Mexican. August 27, 1993, p. 17.

Artist’s Statement

There is a quote that I live by, “If not you, then who?” Kuame Ture also known as Stokeley Carmichael said this to me before his lecture at the University of Illinois in the year of 1989 . He was speaking in one of the largest venues on campus with standing room only. He understood his role, as a leader was to groom new leadership. That day he lifted me to leadership in a movement that became to define my artwork for 20 years. It was also a lesson that captures the importance of people leading in times of crisis and need.

My artwork has always been about a personal journey in my private and my professional life. My Spokane cultural background and heritage gives me invaluable power to fuel my art, teaching and public speaking. Through my experiences living on the reservation and throughout the U. S., I acknowledge that my life’s work is to effect social change. I have advanced much of this change through my artwork that has been exhibited internationally. Art and culture are the basis for all civilizations. The arts play an important role in informing and telling the story of a people. Teaching and building leadership through the arts can empower and give voice to a peoples history, concerns, and issues. As a professional artist, my work is about what it is to be a Native American in the 21st century, which requires examining how we arrived where we are today.