IN PRAISE OF CHARLENE TETERS
Lucy R. Lippard
Few contemporary artists have matched Charlene Teters’s enduring and powerful fusion of art and activism. She has been insisting that Indian Lives Matter in her art and in her public actions for decades, and has been called “the Rosa Parks of American Indians” for her ongoing opposition to offensive Indian sports mascots and all the other stereotypes rampant in U.S. society. Co-founder of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media, she is the subject of the documentary film In Whose Honor. As I write, in the heat of international outrage about the Dakota Access Pipeline’s invasion of sacred sites and water resources on the Standing Rock Lakota reservation, and about ongoing police brutality against people of color as well as pervasive domestic violence against Native women, I realize that more than twenty years ago, each of these issues appeared in Teters’s installations.
Teters got to art school late, as a young mother and survivor of a violent marriage. The courage that informs her life informs her art, which fuses the spiritual and the political, rejecting polemics for subtle, ironic artworks. She is most famous for her courageous stand against Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois, where she attended graduate school in art in the late 1980s. When she saw the effect on her children of the clowning “chief” at a basketball game, she stood alone outside the stadium with a sign reading “American Indians are human beings, not mascots.” She was jeered and spat at. “I didn’t go there to start trouble. I went there for an education,” she said, “and I got one.”
Teters is Spokane — the tribe after which the city was named. Her art has spanned several worlds. Early on, her paintings won first and second place prizes at Santa Fe’s iconic Indian Market. As a longtime educator herself, and a Dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Teters has since won many awards for both her art and her activism. But like women’s work, her task is never done. Like the Standing Rock “protectors” from tribes all over the nation, she is a guardian of cultural values that are increasingly hard to come by in the U.S., land and water among them. Po’e Gae — her public sculpture (with Don Messec) on the banks of the Santa Fe River — considers the social context of a watering place. It is a garden of rain-catching rocks, receiving water from the skies rather than taking it from the river.
Teters’ biting installations are often sparked by racist comments. For example, General Schwarzkopf’s comment on invading Kuwait in 1993 (“It was like going into Indian Country”). The same year, a Forest Service official commenting on the death of a Pueblo firefighter (“It was only an Indian”). Another installation conflated George W. Bush and George Armstrong Custer. Teters’s mother, female relatives, and anonymous Indian women known only in historic photographs are central to her art, but she credits the painter Sylvia Sleigh with opening her eyes to feminism. Her installation work is often a compelling collage, the quintessentially feminist form. She juxtaposes heroic and demeaning views to demonstrate what Native people are up against, and how they have survived. For instance, It was Only an Indian created a curio shop/carnival atmosphere complete with neon to memorialize two Indian heroes and expose the darker side of the iconic Route 66. In another piece she works from the fact that Wall Street is named after a bulwark built to keep out the Indians, who were justifiably angered by the acts of early settlers who tortured and beheaded hundreds of Lenapes (from whom, coincidentally, my grandsons are purportedly descended). Her tragic adobe sculpture, The American Holocaust, evoked without depicting the mass graves of Native genocide.
For me Teters’s masterpiece remains Obelisk: To the Heroes, made for a SITE Santa Fe Biennial in 1999. It is based on the 1867 Soldiers Monument – centerpiece of the Santa Fe Plaza, dedicated to “victories against the Savage Indians.” In the 1970s, someone posing as a city worker in broad daylight chiseled off the word Savage. The “lost” word reappeared writ large on Teter’s full-scale adobe replica, which was embedded with personal mementoes, toys, jewelry, letters, coins, donated by the Native community to recall the human lives behind such official rhetoric, and to reverse the victim status usually accorded Native peoples. This esthetically innovative work, quintessentially local and universal, personal and political, undermined both the permanence and the biased history of the plaza monument. For several years her sculpture remained in place outside the State Capitol as a reminder that art is stronger than ideology. This has been Teters’s message and mission. Challenging the myths that haunt Native people, she has become a myth herself.