Trusting the Seeds to the Next Gardeners

IAIA’s Charlene Teters discusses retirement and passing the torch

Charlene Teters (Courtesy IAIA)

One would expect Charlene Teters (Spokane), the newly retired academic dean at the Institute of American Indian Arts, to tout her own many accomplishments and triumphs throughout her storied life. Not only a successful artist, but also a deeply respected activist who has long worked to convince sports teams to abandon their racist Native-centric icons and mascots, Teters could easily rest on her laurels now that she has officially retired.

In conversation, however, she always first credits those who have helped her along the way. Ever since her mentors encouraged her to pursue an associates in art at IAIA in 1984 when the school was still a two-year institution, all the way until now, as she emotionally credits her superiors at the school for giving her the freedom to be the dean and mentor she wanted to be, it's always about those who have held her up and helped her find her voice.

After decades of leading the next generation of artists and leaders at IAIA (she first joined the staff there in 1992), Teters has made the emotional but confident decision to retire.

"You kinda get to that age where you think, 'I want to have some really good years in retirement'—so, what does that mean?" she tells SFR. "What do I want to do? I've been with IAIA for a long, long time, through many different roles. And [leaving is] actually quite emotional for me—a lot more than I thought, as it gets closer. Very emotional. But I'm also looking forward to going home."

Teters and her husband are in the process of building a house on the Spokane Reservation in Washington State, where she estimates they will be able to move and live full-time in about two years. But retirement doesn't mean stopping the important educational work in which she has been engaged. She has plans to continue to teach and mentor artists from home, and hopes to stay involved in teaching at IAIA.

While she has poured tremendous energy into all three aspects of her public life—artist, activist and educator—Teters says her artist hat is the one she's looking forward to donning most often once her daily schedule changes.

"That's the thing that has maybe suffered the most in being an administrator at IAIA," she says of her art. But she's quick to add: "And of course, I love my position as academic dean, but it's hard to turn that off when you go home, and to be an artist. I have found that to be difficult. So now that I'm going to turn that over to young leadership, I can really focus on—what does Char the artist want to do now that I don't have a day job? I'm kind of looking forward to seeing what that is. I don't know what that is yet, exactly."

When asked why she's retiring now, of all times—isn't now the kind of time that we need seasoned pros like her more than ever?—she says she isn't concerned.

"We have really good people at IAIA," she explains. "If I thought the place had gone to hell, I'd go, 'Geez, I need to stay in here.' But we have some really, really good leadership coming up behind all of us. …So I have a lot of confidence."

And, in reference to running a college amid a pandemic and a rapidly changing society, she says perhaps her departure is even specifically a good thing.

"In some ways, it takes this next generation of leaders to be creative and figure out how we re-make ourselves to deliver content online and in different ways," she says. "I feel like leadership is ripe for their time period. …They understand that things are different, and they can make those adjustments quickly to keep us moving forward in this incredible time period. I feel hopeful there, too."

Her hope extends beyond the school to much of society, as well. When asked about the current awakening or reckoning that seems to be occurring in the United States with regards to systemic racism, she expresses a similarly optimistic outlook.

"I do think that there is an incredible group—larger than we think—[made up of] very conscious people in our communities who recognize racism when they see it," she says. "They don't always act on it, but they see it. And I think that we're in this time period where this division has become so high-pitched that the people of consciousness that I know are out there are starting to be present. …So I think that, in this particular time period where it's getting really high-pitched and almost feels dangerous, I think peoples' consciousnesses are just starting to peak."

It's perhaps comforting to hear a seasoned activist express a rosy outlook, and Teters references her background in education as the way she stays optimistic.

"The reason that I have gone back to education is because you've got to have hope for the future," she continues. "So teaching the next generation of leaders is a hopeful thing to do. It's planting seeds for the future. I have to continue to vote, because I have to hope that America will make good choices, that we'll learn from past mistakes and try to correct them. …I have to be hopeful, so I'm going to be hopeful, not be discouraged, and go vote. We have to be hopeful, and as an educator and a dean at a place that may impact future leadership for all of our many different Native nations, that's a hopeful thing to do."

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