Healing the Generational Divide: The Generosity of Indigenous Women Leaders 

Mar 28, 2024 | Blog, Indigenous Visionaries, Our Programs

Deborah Taffa, IAIA, Director MFA in Creative Writing 

2023-2024 Indigenous Visionaries Fellow 

Her laugh is the first thing you notice. Outside the campus studio where she is painting, outside her classroom where she is teaching studio arts, it’s Charlene Teters’ deep voice and quick wit with students, faculty, and staff that draws you in.

Charlene’s good nature belies the ferocity in her eyes, her straight-up posture, and penetrating gaze. Her body language suggests she is a woman who has struggled and thrived. She was an active opponent of Native American mascots and served as the founding board member of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media in the 1980s, a conservative decade when being “woke” wasn’t fashionable. But despite the era in which she launched her career, she’s not the type to let oppositional forces discourage her activism, and that’s what I admire about Charlene: she’s an individual force unafraid to stand on her own two feet.  

I first met Charlene Teters at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in the winter of 2023, when she came out of retirement to fill in as the Academic Dean for Arts and Cultural Studies. It was a position she had held before retiring, and her reputation preceded her. People whispered that she was intellectual and tough, a reluctant administrator who had taken the job only because she’d been asked to serve by the Institute’s president, Dr. Robert Martin.  

As the new director of the MFA in Creative Writing program, I felt a little tense about meeting her. My first book Whiskey Tender was forthcoming with HarperCollins, but the fact that I had only a smattering of poetry and stories published in national magazines made me a bit nervous. I suffered, as so many Indigenous women in my generation do, from imposter syndrome. I felt like I was a newbie, trying to prove my worth, and I imagined a matriarchal force, a successful artist such as Charlene, might tease or haze me. Here I was, running a program to develop writers, when I was new to the field myself.

Perhaps growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s had accustomed me to tough older Native women who found it hard to support the younger generation with a gentle hand. Often in my life, I’d run across Native elders who had been to Indian boarding school in their youth. They were wounded by governmental policies, cruel priests, and nuns. They’d been raised by administrators with sharp tongues and belts, and they didn’t know how to approach my generation—the first generation who didn’t suffer that abuse—with anything less than an iron will and rugged demands. 

Complicating matters even further, I worked at the most intimidating art institute for Native creatives in the United States. Everywhere you look at IAIA, you find a successful writer, performer, or artist. The IAIA is a thriving art movement. Our alumni, professors, and mentors are national leaders in their chosen mediums. Our faculty members have documentaries streaming on HBO. They have art shows at the Renwick in Washington, D.C. They perform stand-up comedy in New York City, win Pulitzers for their avant-garde music, and have their names scroll across the screen after episodes of the hit television show Reservation Dogs. 

My uncertainties preceded me the day Charlene Teters arrived on campus to serve as my supervisor. And then I heard her laugh. My eyes met hers, and I immediately saw the open interest she takes in other people. I relaxed, noting the way she eschews defensive posturing and makes you feel seen. She was indeed a tough, get-down-to business type of boss. She would hold me to high standards. But the level of generosity she brought to little people like me was a relief. 

A Spokane Salish elder, Charlene has an Associate of Fine Arts degree in painting from IAIA, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Paiting from the College of Santa Fe, and an MFA degree in painting from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. On October 10, 1997, she was honored as “Person of the Week” by Peter Jennings on ABC World News Tonight for her resistance of Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois basketball games. She led to an increase in efforts to ban mascots at athletic events by holding a simple sign that read, “Indians are human beings!” In a sea of hyped-up sports enthusiasts, she stood tall and resisted. In was no small effort during the basketball team’s winningest season in a red state.  

When I asked Charlene where she found the courage to stand up to powerful university forces that wished to keep their mascot and continue to belittle her people, she told me, “I had to.” 

She saw it as her job. She had no option. She had to engage in the fight so her children and grandchildren would not be a new generation of Natives dehumanized. Famous for her activism, she is also well known for her art installations: “Way of Sorrows,” “Looking for a Place,” “It was only an Indian,” “Agitated Histories,” and “The Smile.” The first artist-in-residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, she is a tireless creator who brings her eagle-eye gaze to social issues in the Americas. Of her teaching, she says, “In my life, I must not only make things better for coming generations but also pass on how.”

I am the future generation, and I can vouch for the way she made life better for me. She was the first women elder at the IAIA who openly and effusively praised and congratulated me on my work. Far from making me feel small, she lifted me up. Perhaps only women who feel secure in their own success can be generous enough to do this with the next generation. But it taught me an important lesson about how to treat the young students who enter my program. It’s not okay to work with a scarcity mentality in the arts. Until our stories, films, books, art, and music have infused and affected culture on a broad level, until we have many Native creatives singing an ancestral song for everyone to hear, we have not arrived. The aim is to arrive, together, as a culture, influencing American culture with our beautiful Indigenous values.

I was in a long stretch of quiet creative labor when I arrived at the IAIA, one that hadn’t afforded recognition despite years of labor. Even as I told myself that great works are created when no one was watching, it hurt. It’s hard to stay consistent with one’s practice in the quiet anonymity of pre-dawn hours. Artistic and literary projects are often labored at the edges of the day, and one singular vote of confidence from an elder can make all the difference in a young person’s world. May we all recognize the manual labor and sacrifice that goes into our work as Native creatives. May we fill each other’s cup with more than coffee because caffeine can never give us the same boost as a few kind words from an admired elder. Generosity was the way of our ancestors. May generosity also be our way in the world today.   

To learn more about Charlene Teter’s art or Deborah Jackson Taffa’s writing visit their websites at www.charleneteters.com and www.deborahtaffa.com 

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