Social media star Ian Teller chosen as Native Youth Leader Champion for Change
TSAILE, Ariz. — At 23, Ian Teller already has an impressive résumé under his sash, with a business degree from Fort Lewis College and Master’s in music industry from University of Southern California.
The Tsaile native grew up loving film, and posted Vlogs of his travels. After a gig with the New Mexico Indigenous Youth Council, his videos transformed into documentaries of notable Indigenous performance artists.
Today, Teller’s interviewees include Native artists and politicians alike, including former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Attorney General Ethel Branch and comedian James June. He has over 21,000 followers on TikTok, posting short, funny clips of experiences being Navajo.
He is Tódích’íínii (Bitter Water clan) born for Kinyaa’áanii. His maternal grandfather is Ma’íí Deeshgiizhnii and paternal grandfather is Tó aheedlíínii.
Teller hopes to increase Indigenous representation in the entertainment industry. He has had music and media partnerships with Warner Bros, Grammy U and Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation.
Now, Teller has been chosen as a 2024 Native Youth Leader Champion for Change with the Center for Native American Youth. Each year, the program selects five Native youth as Champions for Change, helping them develop as young leaders through experience-based learning and culturally tailored advocacy training.
Teller is excited to meet the other members of the cohort in Washington D.C. in February. The cohort members include Wambli Quintana, Navajo and Cheyenne River Sioux, Tayler Higgins, of the Seldovia Village Tribe, Sage Phillips, of the Penobscot Nation and Jeidah DeZurney, of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.
The Navajo-Hopi Observer talked to Teller about his new partnership, social media fame, and dreams of working in the film and music industries.
What will you be doing as a Native Youth Leader?
The Center for Native American Youth is giving us a new platform to share our work. They are also sharing resources communities. Our hopes are that in partnership we can produce a number of projects throughout our year as Champions.
What shows and movies did you grow up watching and are you fond of today?
Well, growing up I was always fascinated with sci-fi, fantasy and similar genres so, I spent much of my time watching Marvel and Star Wars movies. Today if I’m being honest I still haven’t lost interest in those films, but I have to say some of my favorite films and series today are those like “Reservation Dogs,” “Prey” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
What was your experience with Indigenous representation on the screen? Do you think there is a lack of representation behind the screen as well as in front?
When I was younger the only times I would see Natives on screen were in western films and today we live in a world where Lily Gladstone has just become the first woman of Native American descent to be nominated for an Oscar. I think that says a lot about how far Natives have come in the industry, but there is still room for Native-centered stories, created and produced by Native people to be shared.
Tell me about your music style and which artists you gravitate toward? Do you plan to start up your own music?
I personally like more R&B, pop and Zach Bryan country, which I feel is its own style. Naturally, I gravitate to artists like Jungkook, Zack Bryan, Childish Gambino. I feel more comfortable in positions that allow me to support artists, which means I don’t necessarily plan on being an artist. I won’t say it’s impossible but I’d much rather manage or support Native artists in navigating the music industry.
I’m curious about your names: Ian Teller and Ian Dawn. Why did you decide to have a stage name and what do you use one versus the other for?
I have made the decision very recently to only use my real name, Ian Teller. For a while there I think I used a stage name as a sort of confidence mechanism. When I started to put content online I was honestly very shy and so something about having a stage name made me more confident. But as of recently, Ian Teller is just fine.
How did you get to attend awards shows? Were you star struck? Any funny moments?
A few lucky moments and some good memberships. I got to attend the American Music Awards as a seat filler, which was such a fun process and crazy experience. I have gone to Grammy related events as a member of the student organization GrammyU.
Both times I got to be in the same room as amazing, incredible artists and its really hard not to get starstruck. I mean especially when your sitting a few seats over from the biggest boy band in the world, BTS. Going alone to the AMA’s as someone who at the time had just moved to Los Angeles was really stressful and I’m pretty sure I got lost several times on my way. Which is funny now but at the time very stressful.
When did you become interested in Navajo politics?
I have always been interested in not only tribal but federal politics from a young age. In high school (Navajo Prep class of 2018) I was apart of the nerdy cliques who would dress like tribal councilmen at the age of 16. I did a lot of student council and speech and debate, which really peaked my interest in that line of work.
How do you make politics fun and interesting to your younger viewers on TikTok?
Having seen what elections mean in this country I wanted to get more involved and make people more engaged in election processes, especially in tribal elections which don’t get the best coverage. My approach to creating election content for my generation is through humor. Drawing inspiration from late-night hosts, I think comedy is an opportunity to laugh about serious issues while also making people aware of the same issues.
What do you think really got people talking and making your social media as popular as it is today?
Well, I think my content popularity really coincided with the 2022 Navajo Nation presidential election. I remember the moment I made that first election coverage video, which was really just a reaction to the candidates and their forums. That form of comedic commentary on the election I think made people laugh and really reconsider which candidates they backed.
I love the video of you asking passerbys about Native American tribes. What prompted this? (video link)
Well, it was after a non-Native friend called me “exotic” and a professor at University of Southern California continued to call me “Indian” after I corrected her countless times to at least say “American Indian.” I think my exposure to just the sheer lack of knowledge the general public have about Native people made me want to just share some of that ignorance. It ended up being one of my best videos, I think because it made people really think, like, “Hmm, maybe I should know more about my country’s original inhabitants.”
Now that you are living outside the reservation, do you notice a general lack of Indigenous knowledge?
Oh, yes. Having lived off the reservation and even traveling abroad I have learned there is little knowledge about Native people and their cultures. Which, I think, says a lot about American education systems.
You have done so much already at 23. What are your big goals for the future?
I have an abundance of plans and at times it’s overwhelming because I fear whether or not they are achievable. However, I have plans to follow in the footsteps of great filmmakers and actors, like Lily Gladstone. I want to create powerful films about my culture and my people that aim to preserve and protect our way of life. I also want to start my own production company, aiming to achieve those set goals. Who knows, maybe one day I pray I get to walk across that Oscar stage myself.
Additionally, I want to go back to school and pick up a few more degrees. When that’ll happen I’m not sure but it is on the agenda. Although, with all these plans I like to take it one step at a time.
Links to Teller's social media accounts can be found at at http://linktr.ee/iandawn.