A cartoonish Native American towering over Durango has divided the city

Jul 10, 2020

The large “chief” sign stands adjacent to the railroad tracks in historic downtown Durango, Colorado, an advertisement for the Toh-Atin Gallery across the street. The sign depicts a Native American man clad in blue jeans, and vest — which many see as a caricature perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
Credit Jeremy Wade Shockley, Special to The Colorado Sun

Should "the chief" stay or go?

The fate of the sign should be determined by “enlightened dialogue and not through mob rule,” says Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who wrote federal law protecting some monuments. 

He has a wide grin under a big nose. A single feather dangles beside one of his braids. His hand is raised in a howdy-friendly wave. And his bow legs and moccasins are planted atop a commercial sign.

 He is “the chief,” a two-story-tall metal depiction of a Native American that has been part of the downtown Durango skyline since the 1940s. The chief used to be lit up in neon and pointing to a Native American-themed diner that served pancakes and fried chicken. He now stands in a parking lot just off Main Avenue pointing to a gallery that sells Native American art across the street.

 And, along with the likes of General George Custer, Christopher Columbus, Kit Carson, Robert E. Lee and the Washington Redskins football team, this caricature of a Native American has become an emotional lightning rod.

The chief is caught in the national statue-toppling, logo-stripping movement focused on images fraught with racist and denigrating inferences that have been tolerated in communities for ages. The purge began in the wave of heightened racial consciousness sparked by the death of a Black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a white Minneapolis cop in May. 

That this sign could so divide Durango likely has something to do with the Old West mystique that permeates this town of 15,000, a population that includes more than 1,000 Native Americans. Stagecoaches roll down Main Avenue. Honky-tonk saloons spill out the mechanical tinkle of player pianos. Portrait studios give visitors the chance to become sepia-toned outlaws and madams.

As for the Native Americans who were driven out of what is now LaPlata County, their images can be bought on T-shirts. Their art can be purchased for some hefty sums. And the hard-to-miss “chief” can be – and often is -- captured in phone snapshots of traveling families posed in front of his moccasins.

“The times have changed. Durango has certainly changed. These types of characters are now seen as harmful,” said Lee Bitsóí, director of the Diversity Collaborative at Fort Lewis College and a member of the Navajo Nation. “It reeks of domination and ownership. It’s a reminder of a historical past that has been romanticized. It is a sign of oppression.”

The chief has been the target of removal efforts in the past, but this time the campaign is gaining true steam from those who are fed up with seeing the waving caricature that they perceive as a racist image that has no place in the Durango of today. Heavy pushback is coming from those who view the chief as a harmless and iconic piece of Durango’s history.

Dueling petitions

The chief has inspired dueling online change.org petition drives – Take Down “The Chief” and Save the Chief. As of this week, around 10,000 signers are pretty split down the middle.

Scads of chief-focused letters to the editor have flowed into the Durango Herald in recent weeks. And sometimes nasty comments have piled up online. Those weighing in include former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and the late country rocker and part-time Durango area resident Charlie Daniels.

“This sign is a landmark, not an insult and offends no one,” wrote Daniels about a week before he died.

“No one” is a stretch.

Vandals crept in one recent night to paint “Not Your Mascot” and a raised fist on the chief’s base. Other townspeople came out several nights later to paint over the graffiti and remove the paint splatters from the chief’s moccasins.

Jackson Clark II, the owner of the Toh-Atin Gallery and the chief sign, was touched by that cleanup and the way many Durango residents, including many of his Native American friends, have told him they view the chief as an iconic part of their town.

“We have no intention to hurt or offend anyone,” Clark said. “We don’t see him as ugly.”

It’s not surprising that emotions over the caricature run high in an area that neighbors Colorado’s only two recognized Native American reservations. Durango is caught in the dichotomy of having more than its share of so-called rubber tomahawk souvenir shops, but also being home to one of the few colleges in the country offering tuition waivers to members and descendants of members of any tribe in the nation. 

More than 40% of Fort Lewis College’s students come from 180 tribes scattered across the country. Young Native American graduates of Fort Lewis have stepped into professional jobs and become part of the fabric – and the civic voice – of Durango.

La Plata County is also reliant on Native Americans for its economic well-being. It is not just that residents of the neighboring reservations come here to live and to shop. The Southern Ute Tribe, with its oil and gas, gaming and real estate enterprises, is the largest employer in La Plata County. Durango has changed -- a lot -- since the sign was made.

Back when the chief was crafted by an itinerant sign artist, college wasn’t the draw. Native Americans came to Durango mainly to socialize. Members of many tribes would gather in Durango for “fiestas” several times each year. It was a tradition, longtime locals say, for them to meet up at the Chief Diner under the pointing chief.

He was hard to miss in those days. He was positioned atop a sign for the diner and stood about 50 feet tall. He was lit up in neon, and his mechanical hand moved up and down in a wave.

The diner itself was painted with Native American designs and kachinas. A somber portrait of Chief Ouray stared down at customers over the entrance. A totem pole – not an item associated with southwest Indians -- incongruously stuck up from one end of the building.

It wasn’t just a place for visiting Native Americans. Local booster clubs met there. Civic groups used the banquet rooms.

Clark, who grew up eating pancakes and fried chicken at the Chief on Sundays, remembers that it was like a museum with all of the Native American artwork on display.

When the café closed down in 1980, Clark thought the chief needed to be saved as a colorful part of Durango’s history. He purchased the sign for $350. At that time, Clark’s family had a Native American gallery in the front showroom of the Pepsi-Cola bottling company owned by Clark’s father. After some neon-stripping and refurbishing in Farmington, New Mexico, the chief went up in front of the plant with a 55-gallon drum painted to resemble a Pepsi can in his hand.

“People were delighted we were going to save it. We were heroes then,” Clark said with a burst of laughter about how some Durango residents view his effort now.

When Clark opened his Toh-Atin gallery just off of Main Avenue and within sight of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train tracks, he took the chief along. He placed it in a parking lot he owns directly across from the gallery.

And that is where it eventually became a town embarrassment to some.  For some, the chief is “a wound frozen in time”

Kirbie Bennett, a Navajo writer who works down the street at Maria’s Books, published an essay about the chief on Medium.com. “Between Mascots and Massacres” has become a sort of manifesto for the anti-chief crowd.

In his essay, Bennett describes the chief as “a wound frozen in time.” He recounts recently observing an older unkempt Native American man staggering past the chief with his head down – on land that was once pried away, in bloody fashion, from Native Americans.

“It was then the chief’s beaming grin felt like a knife twisting deeper,” Bennett writes.

Tirzah Camacho, a Native American who calls herself “an urban Indian” and who works as an associate for The Colorado Trust in Durango, felt similar angst over the chief and started the petition to remove him.

“Lots of people have wanted this to happen for a really long time,” Camacho said. “We’re absolutely in a momentous time now to have this removed and replaced.”

She doesn’t advocate that the chief be knocked down and dragged off by a mob like some statues around the country have been recently. She said she prefers to see the chief become the focal point of a community discussion that would lead to his agreed upon removal.

She has an idea in the back of her head about having the chief ceremonially taken down and cut up into small pieces. Those pieces could be made into commemorative ornaments that could be sold to raise money to fund a more respectful depiction of a Native American. It would be created by a native artist, possibly one of the many whose work is on display inside the Toh-Atin Gallery.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a resident of nearby Ignacio, has the same thought about using the chief as a catalyst for discussion even though, he admitted, “I don’t even notice the thing, frankly.” 

Campbell’s interest in the matter is tied to legislation he crafted in 2003. The Veterans Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act created criminal penalties for desecrating veterans’ memorials. President Trump recently signed an executive order to implement that law and warned by tweet that anyone who vandalizes or destroys any federal monument or statue will face up to 10 years in prison. He is the first president to utilize Campbell’s act.

Campbell said he wrote the law with artists’ First Amendment rights in mind. As an artist and jeweler, he knew that reactions to some paintings and statues are based on raw emotion rather than common sense, and that shouldn’t be grounds for destroying federal monuments.

“This should be done through enlightened dialogue and not through mob rule,” he said of the chief’s fate.

 Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus is also all in for turning the chief into the point of a community discussion and a catalyst for some new respectful recognition of Native Americans in downtown Durango.

Stritikus, who came to the college from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation two years ago, has already taken action on the campus to remove a reminder of a painful period of Native American history there. Fort Lewis was historically an Indian boarding school, and panels on a campus clock tower have photographic depictions of that time when Native American youngsters were taken from their families and forced to abandon their language and culture in boarding schools.

The panels are going to be removed in ceremonial fashion and replaced with something that will be more welcoming to the college’s many Native American students, Stritikus said. He would like the same thing to happen to the chief.

“I think a cartoonish depiction of Native Americans doesn’t play a role in our community,” Stritikus said. “We want to be a model for our community – for how you listen and how you respond.”

Clark, whose gallery has long been widely known as a place where Native Americans in need can go to receive help with food or money, said he is more than willing to be part of that conversation. He has no plans at this time to remove the chief – in fact, he has budgeted for a sprucing up of the sign – but he said the flap over the chief has given him the idea that he should engage more with Native American art students at Fort Lewis. He said a number of those students have worked in his gallery over the years, but he would like to “bridge some gaps” with more students in the future.

Trennie and Precious Collins, who both attended college at Fort Lewis, said they have experienced discrimination around Durango and view the chief as an in-your-face bit of discrimination.

“You have blatant racism on Facebook and subtle racism in person,” said Trennie Collins, who works for the Southern Ute Drum newspaper on the Southern Ute Reservation where she grew up. Her wife, Precious, is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and works in behavioral health for the Southern Ute Tribe. Together, they founded the Southwest Rainbow Youth Group and promote the Natives for Black Lives Matter movement.

They said the controversy over the chief has given them some hope that people are recognizing them as Indigenous people and not as some sort of oddity to be stared at on the streets of Durango. They are also heartened that native voices are coming to the forefront of the discussion about the chief; in their opinion it is not a matter that should be decided by the white population of Durango.

The Durango City Council is dipping a toe into the controversy. Mayor Dean Brookie said the city’s Community Relations Commission will advise the council on possibly setting up community listening sessions and maybe a meeting with Clark. The sign is privately owned and sits on private property so it can’t be dealt with like a statue in a town park or plaza. The sign complies with the town sign code; Clark said he made sure of that when he put it up back in the 1980s.

There are pockets of Native American supporters of the chief around Durango and particularly on the Southern Ute Reservation, sources on both sides of the chief debate say. Some of those supporters have signed the petition website, and Clark said they have come to him to express their support. But attempts to reach some of them were unsuccessful.

“I have Native American artists who are friends and who would be really upset if the chief came down,” Clark said.

For non-Native Americans who support the chief, Precious Collins posed a table-turning question to help them understand why many Native Americans don’t like the chief.

“Can you imagine if we put up a huge statue of a redneck on the reservation? If we gave him a big beer belly and made him goofy looking, and we said, ‘I am telling you, this is for you.’ And then, if we sold images of it. People would not be happy about that,” she said.

The unhappiness she and others feel over the symbolism of an 80-year-old metal sign is obvious in a phrase that now echoes through the Native American community around Durango.

“I am not a mascot. I am not a commodity,” said Bitsóí, the Fort Lewis ethnographer.

“We are not mascots. We are not commodities,” said Trennie and Precious Collins.

In the face of all that, the chief’s 80-year-old grin stays put. His wave welcomes some. Others, it offends.

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This story was written in partnership with The Colorado Sun, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.