The Chief belongs in a museum.
Yes, the odd, oversized, flat-painted cartoon of a Native American pointing to a place of business has outlived this moment.
Created about 80 years ago, the larger-than-life, cheerful figure of a Native American once had a job: pointing customers toward Durango’s Chief Diner. When it closed in 1983, the folks at Toh-Atin Art Gallery bought the Chief and placed him in the parking lot across from the gallery. Since then, the Chief has continued to do his job, a classic trope in American advertising – show the customer where to go.
But the Chief needs to move on – again. A museum is a reasonable solution for a controversial artifact, whether it is a Confederate statue or an outdated version of a minority population.
Two circulating petitions have divided the community into those who are offended by the demeaning happy-face caricature of a Native American and those who see the Chief as a nostalgic emblem of Durango’s civic pride. It’s a big divide.
Here are five suggestions for reframing the Chief’s place in American history and finding a more appropriate home:
1. Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College.
2. The History Colorado Center in Denver.
3. Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
4. The National Museum for American History in Washington, D.C.
5. The National Museum for American Indian Art and Culture, also in D.C.
Any of these institutions would be an appropriate lodging for the Chief, especially if he were in an exhibit about the changing nature of racial stereotyping within the larger context of American business practices. The owners of Toh-Atin Gallery could make a grand gesture and donate the sign. Better yet, a generous benefactor could also support an exhibition of post-World War II changes in American advertising. It’s all about context.
Ideally, the Chief could be merged into an existing permanent exhibit like “American Enterprise” at the National Museum of American History. Check it out at www.americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/american-enterprise.
The exhibition is divided into sections by era: Merchant (which uncomfortably includes slave trading), Corporate, Consumer and Global. A separate biography wall has been added, beginning in 1770. And there’s a section on advertising. Even with his height, the Chief could be accommodated there, and he would be in the company other advertising notaries such as Mr. Peanut, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Wonder Bread, sports mascots and Betty Crocker, a personal, off-kilter favorite of mine. The curatorial staff could put the Chief in context and tell Durango’s story amid larger national trends.
I’d rather see the Chief stay in town. Center of Southwest Studies has a spacious gallery in which he could stand. And, the center has impressive artifact collections, which might begin to support a 20th-century exhibition about commerce. Director Shelby Tisdale has a long-standing professional affiliation with Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and is adept at big-idea exhibitions. With sufficient funding, staffing and time, Tisdale could mount something significant by focusing on the history of business in the Southwest.
Currently, there’s a major exhibition at the center ready-and-waiting to be seen. “PIVOT: Skateboard Deck Art,” curated by two Native American artists, Duane Koyawena (Hopi) and Landis Bahe (Diné), features more than 100 skateboard decks painted or photographed by 30 Native American artists. The title refers to the many transitions made by skateboarders and Native Americans who constantly shift roles between traditional and mainstream life.
Or, the Chief could travel to Denver to the magnificent state museum downtown: The History Colorado Center, which recently reopened to the public. Visit www.historycolorado.org to learn about the next exhibit opening in the Ballantine Gallery.
Hecho en Colorado opened Monday, and will run through to January 2021. Presented in collaboration with the Denver Latino Cultural Arts Center, Hecho en Colorado celebrates the achievements of a community whose influence still adds to the overall culture of the Southwest. It takes little imagination to see the Chief in a different exhibition about American advertising practices in the Southwest 1950-2020.
History Colorado’s mission statement captures the spirit of reframing artifacts that may need a new context: “where artifacts, stories and art intermingle to tell the tale of Colorado and the American West.”
The Chief has another life to live and other stories to tell. If intelligently seen, interpreted and placed in context, the sign can educate us about what it means to live through tumultuous times and how attitudes shift and acquire new perspectives.
Judith Reynolds is an art historian and a political cartoonist.