She’s been called the Rosa Parks of the American Indian people, a noble woman fighting for a simple right - human dignity.
Charlene Teters is a nationally recognized artist and Spokane Indian who arms herself with brushes and personal experience to paint the ugly colors of racism.
Teters takes a spot next to Parks when it comes to racial equality. She is unwilling to move, or be moved. Even as she’s being spit on, yelled at and threatened, Teters stands firm.
Through her art, she’s fighting back.
“To do nothing is basically to pass on the problem to the next generation to solve,” Teters says.
That’s something the 43-year-old mother of two is unwilling to do.
Teters, currently a visiting art instructor at Ohio State University, is working to dispel Indian stereotypes.
This week, she brings her work - and her messages - back home to Spokane.
Her exhibit, “We, The Invisible People,” probes the deeply ingrained racism against American Indians prevalent in mainstream America, particularly in the use of sports mascots.
Teters’ display includes a recreated room of her grandmother’s cardboard and tarpaper home, sports symbols, and twists on political propaganda. It opens today at the Cheney Cowles Museum.
The title of the exhibit is at the core of her battle.
“If we’re invisible, then the racism that exists against us is invisible,” Teters says.
With quiet authority, she will say her work is important. Teters rarely speaks in the first-person singular. Whether talking about her art or her people, she seems to address an issue much larger and more important than herself.
Though soft-spoken and non-confrontational in person, Teters uses art to make her voice loud.
“Her art can hit people over the head, in a sense,” says Barbara Racker, Cheney Cowles art curator. “But she does not.”
Taking images directly from pop culture, Teters uses glossy, carnival colors to make her point. One piece of Teters’ exhibit is an enlarged “REDSKINS” team logo, blood-red and bold. It hangs against a backdrop of small Indian figures slumped over a horse to mark the end of the Indian Trail. The message is clear: that images and trademarks have been so candy-coated and commercialized that they’re no longer seen as racist.
Inspired by the struggles of her people, Teters loads her art with a culture she worries is fading fast. She fears American Indians may become the “forgotten people.” Her concern is rooted in the sense of antiquity associated with Indians found in present-day society and museums alike.
“If you didn’t know anything about the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene people, you might think maybe we don’t exist anymore, maybe all that’s left are these dresses and these baskets,” Teters says.
But there is more to the American Indian than artifacts. And there is more to Charlene Teters than art.
She has earned a reputation as having courage - a woman who stays committed to her work and her cause.
Her art is direct and leaves a lasting impression on people like Peter Campbell.
Campbell, counselor for the American Indian Studies Department at Eastern Washington University, says Teters’ work challenges stereotypes of American Indian people. It also influences the lives of the younger generation.
“It’s like she has opened doors by her work, by her life, that allows the younger people to come through,” Campbell said.
Teters is mostly fighting for them - to try and lessen the discrimination for the next generation.
Her crusade against racial discrimination began several years ago, spawned by an incident on a college campus she won’t ever forget.
It happened at the University of Illinois in 1991. Teters and her two teenagers, George and Kristal, then 19 and 14 respectively, attended a basketball game at the school. The school’s mascot was the Illini Indian.
Teters, one of three American Indians recruited to the school as teaching assistants, remembers how students wore fake war paint, gallivanted off to bars and acted out the role of the stereotypical “Indian drunk.” Sororities had squaw contests, and male students ran around with chicken feathers in their hair.
“It began to undermine the self-esteem of my children,” Teters says. “They started to think there must be something terribly wrong with being Indian because we’re constantly the butt of jokes here.”
Frustrated at the lack of respect for Indian people, Teters took matters into her own hands - physically. She held up a sign at the next game that read: “Indians are not mascots.”
“I was trying to bring awareness, letting people see me,” Teters says. Her very presence challenged the notion that Indians were nothing but mascots.
Sports fans argue that the mascots should be seen as an honor. But Teters and other Indians see it as a disgrace and blatant defamation of Indian culture.
For the next two years, Teters continued to stand outside sporting events in silent protest, challenging the university and the community of Champagne, Ill., to realize the impact of the mascot on her people.
“I was protecting the integrity of my cultural identity,” Teters says. She also wanted her children to be proud of being Indian.
Fans were quick to show their discontent. Teters and her family soon became the targets of endless hate crimes in the campus community and the city. Phone threats were routine. Teters found threatening notes in her mailbox. And her children struggled with harassment from schoolmates.
“There was a community going after my family,” Teters says.
She watched George and Kristal writhe under the contempt of their peers. Seeing the pain in their eyes was the main catalyst for Teters’ decision to become more political about defending Indians, something any mother can empathize with, Teters says.
The threats were not enough to make Teters gather up her family and leave.
“You have to stand up,” Teters says. “I thought, ‘If this is hurting my children, it’s hurting other people as well.”’
Five years later, Teters continues to fight. Like many artists, her work is dedicated to social change. But unlike other artists, her work is not for sale.
“For me, art is not a commodity,” Teters says. “My art can only be experienced. Then it only exists in your memory.”
If the message is important enough, visitors will remember, Teters says.
And in a larger context, Teters suggests Indians - and their culture - are not for sale.
She doesn’t know how the Spokane community will respond to her work, but she hopes the splashy colors will make her message clear.
“Until we can get rid of these symbols and language,” Teters says, “we will always be a nation in dishonor.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Charlene Teters art exhibit, “We, The Invisible People,” opens today at the Cheney Cowles Museum, 2316 W. First, with a special lecture by Teters at 7:30 p.m. It runs through April 7.
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