A petition to take down the “Chief” – a large caricature of a Native American man in downtown Durango – had received more than 2,300 signatures as of 11:30 a.m. Friday.
“We are calling on the city of Durango, Mayor Dean Brookie and Toh-Atin Gallery to do the right thing by removing Toh-Atin Gallery’s racist caricature sign, known as ‘The Chief,’” the petition, created by a group called Durango Peace and Justice, reads.
“In times like these, there is no excuse for the continued presence of dehumanizing stereotypes (nor was there ever). We demand the sign’s removal immediately.”
Durango Peace and Justice declined to comment for this story.
The Chief, located on west Ninth Street across from Toh-Atin Gallery, which owns the sign, has been a part of Durango’s history since the 1950s, when it stood outside the old Chief Diner at Main Avenue and 21st Street.
After the Chief Diner closed in the early 1980s, the Chief sign was eventually moved to the location where it now stands.
Over the years, the sign has generated controversy from some people who say the caricature is degrading and offensive, reinforcing stereotypes about indigenous people and serving as a symbol of systemic racism.
The petition on Change.org is being signed by people from all over the country, with a significant number of people from the Four Corners.
“It’s 2020. Racism and anything that spreads the stereotypes of Native Americans is not acceptable,” Crystal Bahazhome, who lives in Farmington, wrote on the petition. “It never was.”
Rose Nofchissey, a Shiprock, New Mexico, resident, wrote that she “feels insulted when I see stereotypes of us indigenous people that are degrading” and called for Toh-Atin Gallery to take the sign down.
Brookie said Wednesday the sign is on private property, and therefore the city has no authority or say whether the sign comes down, but he recognizes it has “not been without controversy from its inception.”
“One can appreciate the history of it, but maybe the message is inappropriate, with a different meaning in today’s society than when it was erected,” he said. “I think it’s a timely and important conversation to have.”
Antonia Clark, co-owner of Toh-Atin Gallery, said she was aware of the petition and welcomes conversation about what the sign means to different people.
Clark says only a small minority oppose the sign, and many Native American artists she works with, as well as customers who come into the gallery, appreciate and like the waving Chief.
“We in no way ever want to offend anyone,” Clark said. “There are 175,000 Navajos, and we hear negative things from only five or six.”
Clark said Toh-Atin Gallery works regularly with Native American artists and tries to promote the tribe’s culture, lifestyle and art. She said there are much more important issues to focus on, such as helping the Navajo Nation obtain solar energy for dependable electricity, than criticizing a sign in Durango.
“This is not a sign of a guy with war paint and a tomahawk or a figure that massacred Native Americans like Kit Carson,” she said. “He looks like a lot of the people we work with. We’re not making fun of anyone.”
In the days since the appearance of the petition calling for the Chief’s removal, a counter-petition, also on Change.org, has gathered signatures in support of the sign.
Created by Durango resident Keartsy Wegher, the petition received more than 1,500 signatures in one day.
“Durango has embraced its Native heritage for a long time and this statue does not represent a racist way of living,” Wegher wrote on the petition. “We are a diverse town with Spanish, Mexican and Native American influences ... we need to APPRECIATE this, not ERASE IT.”
Re-evaluating symbolsAcross the country, a movement to take down what some consider symbols of historical racism and oppression has been re-energized after the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minnesota.
Earlier this week in Albuquerque, public pressure resulted in city officials taking down the statue of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador. And in Denver, there’s a call to change the name of the Stapleton neighborhood because of the former mayor’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
In Durango, there have been a handful of similar incidents over the years.
In 1994, at the urging of Native Americans at Fort Lewis College, which make up a about 40% of the student body, the school changed its mascot from the Raiders, a name seen as highlighting a perceived violent nature in indigenous tribes, to the Skyhawks.
More recently, panels at FLC depicting the college’s history were criticized last fall for glossing over dark parts of the school’s past when it served as a boarding school for Native American students from 1891 to 1910.
The panels, however, sparked a larger conversation about the systemic and consistent misportrayal of Native American history that frequently leaves out how Western settlers took over ancestral lands, attempts at genocide and, when all else failed, efforts to erase culture.
As a result, a working group was formed to re-evaluate the ways FLC tells its history, which included holding public listening sessions, committee discussions, stakeholder input and conversations with tribes.
“A key question was how understanding and recognition of that past inform our present and future,” said Lauren Savage, FLC spokeswoman.
Dean Jesse Peters, who led the project, said the current national attention on institutional violence and racism perpetuated against people of color in the U.S. is a “sobering reminder of how important this work has been.”
“Our goal is to realize the potential of Fort Lewis College as an inclusive educational space where all members of the community grow and learn together,” he said.
When asked whether Toh-Atin Gallery would ever take the Chief down, Clark said it would take “really serious conversations, and some really compelling proof and argument” from those opposed to the sign.
“In the last 20 years, maybe 20 people have approached us or written a letter or posted to Facebook about the sign,” she said. “It just has not been a big issue.”
But, Clark insists, she is always willing to talk and engage about the issue.
“It always makes more sense to talk to people,” she said. “You never learn anything if you’re talking and not listening.”