Decorated with bright, sour colors of orange and yellow, with a large eagle feather hanging down his head and a large nose drooped down his face, he points with glee to the building across the street — the Toh-Atin Art Gallery in downtown Durango. Known as the Chief statue, this eccentric figure is unavoidable to people browsing businesses on Main Avenue. His naïve smile is similar to that of the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo, and his eager waving and pointing gestures divert attention to the art gallery. He is frozen in his movements, confined by telephone wires, relegated to a parking lot.
I thought of this figure one day while at a nearby restaurant. During lunch I overheard a white couple conversing loudly during their meal over “how great the real estate market is” in Durango and contemplating whether or not to rent out their townhouse. Their smiles and voices gave off a glow of wealth and power. When I left the restaurant, I passed the Chief statue standing like a wound frozen in time. Just then an older Native American man walked past me. Wearing a dirty baseball cap that covered up a mess of long hair, he walked in a slow stagger. His face looked bloated red and he walked with his head down, swaying in slow motion. I wondered how many homes the Native man owns, if any at all. Perhaps nowhere near as many as the couple in the restaurant. Ironically we walk on land that was murderously pried away from Native ancestors. Pried away and displaced, with cartoonish figures made to erase and remember us. It was then that the Chief’s beaming grin felt like a knife twisting deeper.
The statue stands out as an oddity amidst the downtown traffic. It stands out like the elephant in the room that you can only barely smile at. It stands out like a question mark. As a Diné resident of Durango, for as long as I have lived here, many questions have come to mind every time I pass the statue. And as years pass, they beg to be answered. Where did it come from and how did it end up here next to this art gallery? And, given the on-going nationwide controversy over racist stereotypes of Native Americans, as well as action taken against controversial symbols and figures glorifying the Confederate South, why is this monument still standing? What does it mean for Native Americans and for Durango to have it still proudly displayed? And what can be done to correct this?
A blend of natural and fluorescent lights shine through the massive window panes in Jackson Clark’s upstairs office in the Toh-Atin Art Gallery. Stacks of paperwork and documents fill up the room. Shelves filled with books on Native American art and history are also illuminated by the afternoon light. The Chief statue was originally a part of the Chief Diner — a popular roadside diner in Durango throughout the 1940s to the 1980s. “When the restaurant was closing in the early ’80s, one day I was driving by and saw that they were auctioning off items, including the sign,” says Clark, the owner of the gallery. “A guy from Denver bought it but I told the restaurant owners to keep in touch with me in case anything changes. The guy bought it for something like $300, and one day I got a phone call from the Jackson family [the restaurant owners] saying his check bounced.” Eventually the statue came into the possession of the Clark family and business. As the art gallery moved locations in Durango over the years, the statue traveled with the business, receiving modifications along the way, such as changing the logo at the base from the neon orange of “Chief Restaurant” to the modest, minimalist design of “Toh-Atin Art Gallery.”
After providing a history of the statue’s journey, Clark pauses for a moment, then begins to address the controversy over the sign’s stereotypical caricature of Native Americans. Clark notes that after acquiring the sign in the 1980s, he was “a little concerned” about how the Native community would receive it over time. But he says, “I’ve worked with a lot of Native American artists — I talked about it with them and they approved of it.” For Clark, gaining that initial consent from Native artists he worked with in the ’80s permanently erased any doubts he had. “If anybody would have objected, we wouldn’t have put the sign up.”
Clark then gets up from his seat and opens the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet. “I wrote this a few years back,” he says while handing me a scanned copy of a Letter to the Editor for The Durango Herald from October 1997. “It’s preserved out of respect,” reads the title of Jackson Clark’s letter, written in response to a letter, written by a Native American, stating the “Sign mocks Indians.” “I wrote another letter like that recently through e-mail,” Clark says, smiling. “Let me try and find it — it’s probably my best one.” He anxiously scrolls through his e-mails while I hold the scanned letter in my hands.
Some moments pass as Clark eagerly sifts through his e-mail inbox. I skim through the scanned letters, reading portions of the opposing voice. “If the thoughtful owners of Toh-Atin gallery grew up with ‘a genuine respect for people,’ why do they have a 60-foot caricature of an American Indian pointing at their store?” the piece asks. “Well, I can’t find that letter on here,” Clark says, staring at his computer. He turns around to his seat. “Maybe it’s for the best; it was pretty mean-spirited.”
“We feel that preserving the Chief is about preserving the history of Durango,” one paragraph reads near the end of Jackson Clark’s 1997 letter. A statement that he still repeats to this day throughout our conversation.
Despite the consent of Native artists to display the sign, these letters and e-mails acknowledge consistently outspoken objections by Native peoples. And despite proudly displaying the sign as a way to preserve Durango history, Clark admits they consciously avoid using the statue in any national advertisements. “As far as identifying our company, we have another logo of a man on a horse.” Clark continues: “We would never stick the Chief in ads unless people realize the context — that it’s part of the local history.”
When it comes to the creation of the statue itself, Clark noted that to this day the man who made the sign remains unknown. “He might have been a travelling sign maker, touring the country,” Clark suggests. He opens a filing cabinet and hands me a photo of a similar statue spotted in Cleveland, Ohio. “They have the Cleveland Indians out there, you know?” Clark smiles when reminding me of this. The statue in the photo looks even cruder than the Chief figure outside. Clark hypothesizes that the man responsible for the Chief may have had a hand in creating this Cleveland statue. Yet it is not hard imagine that all of it is mere coincidence. When it comes to crude stereotypical representations of Native Americans, there is only a limited amount of stock figures to expand on. The statue’s similarity to Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians speaks to that limited scope of vulgar imagination.
“Almost all Indian public art trades on the same stereotypical ideas of what an Indian means,” notes the scholar and poet Dean Rader in his essay, “Roofs, Roads and Rotundas” which explores the popular and problematic usage of Native Americans in roadside attractions, created by white artists for the enjoyment of a white audience. Roadside statues painfully recall the “cigar-store Indian,” provoking negative, dehumanizing images of Indigenous peoples. “Whether public art or public embarrassment, roadside Indians have been converted into capitalist icons, despite the fact that they originated in noncapitalist cultures.” As Rader notes, such problematic imagery reinforces a misrepresentation of the people, making their humanity invisible while profiting from those crude representations. The Chief statue outside the art gallery, foolishly and joyously pointing to the business places itself in that grotesque category.
“I think it’s a visually clear indication that colonial domination is alive and well,” says Dr. Frances Kay Holmes, professor of Native American Studies at Fort Lewis College. Regarding Clark’s position that the statue is preserving local history, Dr. Holmes responds, “We can take that rationale and say it’s OK to have a noose on display or Klan memorabilia since that’s local history,” in reference to Durango’s long history with the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th century.
Beyond such local history, the state of Colorado was founded on the genocide of Native Americans. In the 19th century fervor of Indigenous extermination, the government of the Colorado territory composed a whole military unit — the Third Colorado Cavalry Regiment — devoted to cleansing the land of any Native Americans in the area. Such masochistic frenzy resulted in the murder of around 150 unarmed Cheyennes and Arapaho near Fort Lyons in southeastern Colorado on November 29, 1864. This atrocity, known as the Sand Creek Massacre, was spearheaded by Colonel John Chivington who once stated, “My intention is to kill all Indians I may come across.” Chivington’s thirst for blood made no distinction, nor had any mercy, for elders and young Native children, noting, “Nits make lice.”
After the massacre, the soldiers of the “Bloody Third” Cavalry were honored with a parade down the streets of Denver. The men rode through waiving Indian scalps and other “trophies,” such as the mutilated genitals of the Native victims. A local publication, The Rocky Mountain News, called the event a “brilliant feat of arms.” It is on this foundation of genocide that monuments are made to murderers while the Indigenous victims are memorialized with crude mascots. It is on this foundation that the Chief statue rests on.
For Dr. Holmes, the art gallery’s persistent position to keep the statue up reveals “a clear lack of understanding with racial issues and it shows white privilege at work.” She adds, “He can dictate what is okay to display while remaining oblivious to how it impacts people broadly”
When made aware that Clark was given the consent from Native artists in the 1980s to display the sign, Dr. Holmes comments, “There’s two problems there — first, it allows a small group to represent many Indigenous nations and second, he has that power dynamic over people who want to market their supplies with him. He anticipates that response from people who rely on him to make a living.” Among the number of Native Studies courses Holmes teaches at Fort Lewis, one is a course that examines representations of Natives in film and media. She notes that such vulgar caricatures of Indigenous peoples, whether on the silver screen or on the streets, ties into the continued maintenance of racial domination and colonization. “This has everything to do with maintaining that structure; it’s also related to the land theft of Natives, to keep that hierarchy in place so we don’t have to deal with accountability.”
Echoing this sentiment is the scholar Ward Churchill. In his essay, “In the Manner of Julius Streicher,” he notes that despite the numerous genocidal atrocities that Natives have experienced — the legacies of which continue to this day — only a flicker of public concern has been raised. The way Natives are disfigured and misrepresented in popular culture, Churchill notes, plays a significant factor in making invisible the suffering of Indigenous peoples. Whether it’s the Wild Savage or the Noble Savage of the Western, the cigar-store Indian outside of trading posts or the goofy Indian pointing to an art gallery, “We are habitually presented to mass audiences one-dimensionally, devoid of recognizable human motivations and emotions; Indians thus serve as props, little more. We have thus been thoroughly and systematically dehumanized.”
“I think he looks cross-eyed,” one former employee of the art gallery says of the Chief statue. The former employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke of how constantly uncomfortable the statue made them feel while working there. “I remember white tourists coming by, standing in front of the statue, getting their pictures taken.” However innocuous such photo opportunities may be, they continue to glorify the misrepresentation of Natives embodied in the statue. “It doesn’t represent the Native community here in Durango, especially students at Fort Lewis,” says the former employee.
Other Durango residents express similar sentiments, such as freelance artist Clint McKnight. A Durango resident for over 10 years, McKnight admits it took time to realize how offensive the statue is for Natives. “I’m embarrassed to say at first I justified it as historic kitsch that the town accepted. Over time I realized what an offensive stereotype it is.” McKnight adds, “It surprises me that it exists. I don’t know why anyone hasn’t hooked up a chain to it one night and pulled it down. They might have to spend a night in jail but they would be a cultural hero.”
In her study on the need for genuine Indigenous inclusivity in the classroom and mainstream culture, the scholar Yatta Kanu highlights how important representation is for Indigenous communities, especially young people. “One of the most significant ways in which racism works is in regulating our representations of ourselves and others,” Kanu states of representation’s harmful effects when left in the hands of the dominant culture. Such representation includes inaccurate characterizations of the “’other’ and their truth, knowledge, and histories.” Kanu adds, “Representation is important not only because it reflects identity at a particular historical moment, but also because it creates that identity.”
On the main floor of Toh-Atin, white men walk through the maze of the gallery’s interior, smiling and staring at the artwork on display. Dispersed throughout the store are statues and portraits of Natives riding horses or sitting on a stump ready to tell traditional stories. There is a stark difference among these art pieces and the cartoon Chief statue. The expressions and emotions inscribed on these figures are not that of the stereotypical stoic Indian, the wild savage or the fumbling uncivilized sidekick. With brush strokes of subtlety, many of the Native figures in these depictions evoke a sense of humanity and lived experience. It is an authenticity that is best conveyed by the craft and care of Indigenous artists. Alongside all this, a knitted blanket of the Chief statue hangs on the doors as one exits the gallery. The blanket serves as a reminder for what awaits outside.
“I think they should take it down,” Dr. Holmes says when asked what should be done to improve the statue. “There’s no way to make it a better situation.”
“I’d be curious to see what would happen if something like a city referendum was held on that statue,” Clint McKnight suggests. “People would be forced to think about it; they would have recognize that it isn’t right.”
“The statue should get a make-over from Native artists,” the former employee adds. “They could modernize him; make him more intelligent and give him a self-respecting look.”
Despite these condemnations and critiques, Jackson Clark still feels that there is more of a positive response to the statue. “What we try to do is represent quality work by Native professionals who make a living at it and depend on us. Our family has been working with Native artists for years; the last thing you ever want to do there is disrespect the people,” Clark adds.
As the interview with Clarks winds down, he adds, “If you want to talk about an affront to Natives, this is just a minor detail. If a Navajo guy walks into a pawnshop in New Mexico, they’ll overcharge him — and that’s racially motivated and it’s legal.” Clark raised this issue as an example of something critics of the statue should divert attention to.
While such an issue is more than valid to address, it is also possible to take a multi-pronged approach and address various problems at once. Which is what critics of the Chief statue do when connecting its racist caricature to historical and present-day injustices against Native Americans. The statue’s crude depiction is part of the larger attempt of dehumanizing Native Americans, as a means of continuing and asserting colonial rule and down-playing atrocities such as the Sand Creek Massacre. To avoid the issue and divert attention elsewhere, as Clark suggests, means to avoid holding the dominant culture accountable and confronting the wounds of history. This act of obfuscation, of pointing the finger away from the problem one is staring at, ironically calls to mind the Chief statue’s foolishness.
And although the art gallery promotes Indigenous artists, as acknowledged by Clark, it still perpetuates harmful stereotypes by the continued display of the statue. By continuing to do so, the art gallery can never achieve its goal of respectfully promoting Native American art and culture.
On a clear day outside in the bustle of downtown Durango, the statue stands over the traffic of cars and people. As I leave the art gallery, a vagrant Native man walks past me. Carrying a large backpack and wearing dirty boots and jeans, he looks back and forth for traffic and finally crosses the street. The statue casts a shadow over him as he walks by it. The statue casts a shadow over me and other Natives that it claims to represent. The statue casts a shadow over the open graves of history that we as a community and country refuse to confront.
With crude statues of Native figures on display as a way of making a profit, businesses such as the Toh-Atin Art Gallery are complicit in perpetuating the traumatic legacy of colonization. Until changes are made that respectfully honor Native Americans, the stubborn insistence to display the Chief figure is no different from the arrogance of NFL Redskin’s owner Dan Snyder.
For Native Americans, we are caught between mascots and massacres. The cruelty inherent in each, and the connection between the two, continues to be minimized by people with power and influence such as Jackson Clark. And all the while Natives are made invisible. Our humanity is taken away and our suffering is silenced and every act of denial compounds that. This plays a part in giving justification for the on-going exploitation and degradation of Native land and resources. If one’s identity becomes reduced to stereotypes, as often happens with Natives, then that assumes powerlessness and it is not long before the vultures of the corporate state think they can feast on the corpse of what they perceive as a dying people.
Of course, even if people are successful in having the long-standing Chief statue removed, many more systemic issues need to be confronted for justice to be fully actualized for Native Americans. It would be one step among many to be taken. Yet, perhaps that is what people in power fear. What other demands would Natives and their allies make after bringing that statue down? What other monuments of injustice would they tackle next? What institutions of oppression would they come for afterwards? Every act of resistance, no matter how small or symbolic, is an act of liberation. Removing monuments and mascots of racist stereotypes helps in part to remove the shadow of colonization that hangs over Native North America. In its place will shine the light of liberation.