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IAIA graduation speech by Charlene Teters

SANTA FE, N.M.  Students graduating from the Institute of American Indian Arts must follow their dreams, never give up. And, become leaders.

This was the message from keynote speaker Charlene Teters (Spokane) at the virtual graduation ceremony on May 15. She and others congratulated the students for their perseverance despite the COVID 19 pandemic

“You are brilliant. You are creative. You persevered through this year of the pandemic,” she said.

Teters is an artist and an activist who received her associates degree from IAIA, and her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Illinois. She taught in the Studio Arts Department at IAIA and then served as Academic Dean. She retired from IAIA in 2020. She received an honorary Doctorate of Humanities at the ceremony.

She is also well known for leading protests against the use of Native America mascots at sporting events.

She began her involvement as an activist by protesting the use of the mascot Chief Illiniwek while a student at the University of Illinois.  She is a founding member of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media which continues to protest the use of these mascots. The University retired Chief Illiniwek in 2007.

Teters has received many awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for the Arts and the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. She appears in several films including “In Whose Honor?” about the use of mascots. Many of her art installations feature the damaging effects of mascots.

Teters appeared for her speech wearing many items that reminded her of her ancestors. She began by asking “what’s your heart?”

She congratulated the parents of the students “who poured so much into the dreams of these young people. They are our future leadership. This achievement is an important milestone. You represent many Native nations along with sacrifice and determination. You had so many obligations, still you persevered. You are truly inspirational.”

She quoted Martin Luther King who said “Once in life there are those moments that words cannot express. This is one of those moments. When only tears come, that’s the heart.”

“You represent so many cultures, and have so many responsibilities and were not stopped by this pandemic,” she added.

Teters described her father who was an artist himself and worked as a bartender in a hotel to support the family. There he then met a woman who worked at the hotel who became his wife and the mother of his children. But when Teters was 18, her father died.

“We had many discussions about what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an artist,” Teters said. “He paused. ‘Be a teacher, a nurse, anything but an artist.’ But I think he would be proud. Pursue your dreams. You can do anything you want to, be anything you want to. I did not do this alone.  I had many mentors. In Spokane there was an artist colony. They encouraged me to attend IAIA. I had doubt but I had family and mentors who helped me.”

She continued by talking about her years as a graduate student in art at the University of Illinois.

Attending the University of Illinois “was life changing for me. It was a dream come true, but it turned into a nightmare” she recalled when she attended a sporting event with her children and they witnessed the mascot of the college, Chief Illiniwek, – a non-Native man dressed in eagle feathers and face paint who danced and hollered during half-time as the crowd cheered.

But she also met many people who inspired her in those years including the Civil Rights leader Stokely Carmichael while she was leading protests against Chief Illini and other degrading depictions of Native Americans featured throughout the college town of Champaign, Illinois.

Carmichael asked her to speak at a gathering, but she was terrified to do so.

“He said ‘If not you then who?’ So I knew I had to do this. This is an issue for Native Americans whose culture was being degraded. He lifted me. He was a mentor.”

She then urged the graduates “Follow your dreams. and be a leader. When you have doubts look into your history. You have many mentors. If not you, then who? I led protests against it. It continues to this day. But good things came out of it. I met incredible people, who lifted me to leadership.”

She urged students to take on leadership positions.

“This is an issue for you,” she said. “Pursue your dreams, be grateful and remember your mentors. This is the path of the heart. If you have doubts, there will be answers. If you need inspiration look without and to the heroes in your people. There is a need for new leadership. If not you, then who?”

(Kate Saltzstein can be reached at

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