The killing of George Floyd and the righteous anger that followed it have thrust our society into a maelstrom of emotion over racial inequality, police reform, and a cultural reckoning in which the symbols of past injustices are being scrutinized and, in many cases, torn down. Confederate statues are being removed or unceremoniously toppled from their lofty perches. The Washington Redskins, after years of defiance, have announced that they are changing their name. The U.S. Army has agreed to rename military bases named after Confederate generals (although Donald Trump opposes it). And in Durango, Colorado, our little corner of the world, a controversy has arisen over a large sign of a Native American “chief” whom some regard as historical folk art while others view as a derogatory depiction of Native people.
I have to confess that when I learned of the controversy over the “Chief” sign, I struggled to recall what the sign looked like. I’ve lived in Durango for three decades and have driven by, parked beside, and walked beneath that sign hundreds if not thousands of times. I had reached that point of familiarity where I no longer saw what I had obviously seen numerous times, like knowing how to drive to a place on the other side of town although you’re unable to give someone directions because you can’t recall the street names. When I was told that some Native Americans found the sign offensive, I had to Google the sign’s image before remembering what it looked like and questioning why someone might be offended by it.
As with any cultural controversy, people fall on both sides of the issue. The sign’s owner argued in a letter to the editor of the Durango Herald that their Native American art gallery, Toh Atin, is a family business that has worked with Native people “as friends and partners for over 60 years.” They purchased the sign years ago from the defunct Chief Diner and asked their Native artists if they approved. “Nearly every artist we asked voiced their support and no one felt it was offensive,” the owner wrote. Moreover, since the controversy arose, “the number of emails, texts and calls we have received from people who adamantly want the Chief to stay speaks loudly.”
One of the people supporting the sign was Pearl Casias, former chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. In a letter to the Herald, she wrote, “To us, the sign represented a friendly place [referring to the Chief Diner] where Indians were welcomed. None of us felt the sign was offensive.” She added, “I believe the ‘Chief’ sign is an important part of local history that conjures positive memories for those of us who frequented the diner over a half-century ago. It should be celebrated, not destroyed.”
For a different view, I’m turning to Faith Roessel, a Navajo Indian and Fort Lewis College alumna who serves on the Fort Lewis College Foundation Board, where I also serve. As a child growing up in this region, later as an FLC student, and then as an adult, Faith appreciated the quality Indian art displayed in Toh Atin, but she came to realize, she wrote in a letter to board members, that what was also being promoted by the “Chief” sign was “the stale image of the ‘old west.’” As a parent, she said, “I constantly remind my boys that we define who we are, others do not define (us). I will readily admit this is much easier said than done, especially when I am up against distorted depictions of American Indians that undercut how I view myself, my community, and what I want for my children.” Faith began seeing “the affable ‘Indian’ in a different light. . . No longer did he represent a sign innocuously marking a store. He was a representation; a fiction of how non-Indians saw us.”
It helps to put the “Chief” sign in the broader context of what is happening across the country as so many have been awakened to centuries-long inequalities and injustices minority communities have endured. The anger, shared by many in the majority population, quickly morphed into protests, demonstrations, and violent confrontations with police. Confederate statues, long a point of contention for many people, were targeted as symbols of racial oppression, and some local governments voted to remove them. But this process was not swift enough for some people. Unruly mobs (are any of them ever “ruly”?) took it upon themselves to decide which statues should remain and which torn down, dispensing the kind of vigilante justice mostly seen in old westerns when angry citizens break into the town jail and string up an accused without a trial.
Some people have suggested closing museums, expelling all reminders of an injust past, as though removing the evidence can expunge the guilt we’ve inherited from our ancestors whose perspectives and cultures were not as evolved as we believe ours to be. This begs the question: how will our distant descendants view us? What mistakes are we making now that they will condemn when our choices and our opportunity to defend ourselves lie in the dust with our bones?
When does the past become history rather than a crime? Should we condemn Mark Twain for having used the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn, arguably one of the greatest American novels? Should we demolish the Washington Monument and rename Washington, D.C. and the State of Washington because our first president was a slave owner? Should we burn the Declaration of Independence because it was drafted by another Virginian who owned slaves? Should the Roman Colosseum be torn down because it was the site of the public slaughter of hundreds of thousands of gladiators, slaves, and wild animals, all to the delight of ancient Roman citizens? Should Auschwitz be leveled as a prominent site in the Holocaust? Or should it be preserved as a reminder and a memorial?
We can’t rewrite history by destroying its artifacts. Nor can we expiate our modern guilt over what transpired hundreds of years ago by consigning historical relics to the dustbin of present-day political correctness.
I believe the past should be studied and understood but certainly not erased. Whether we choose to honor certain ancestors and events is a matter of individual discretion, but having mobs determine which monuments and statues are culturally and politically acceptable denies the rest of us the opportunity to join the debate and make informed, democratic decisions. The owner of the Toh Atin gallery shared a Facebook post regarding the “Chief” sign in which the author of the post wrote: “Either the business and city respond appropriately to this petition, or a campaign will escalate, likely including protests at the sign, pickets and sit-ins at the business, raucous peoples’ occupations of City Council meetings, and if it comes to it, the removal of the statue by direct action. This is their last chance. They are on notice.” This ultimatum is precisely the type of vigilante threat that all of us, as citizens in a democracy, should abhor. Discussion, yes, debate, yes—but unilateral destruction of private property, no. In another letter to the Herald, former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American, noted that “violence is the wrong way to rectify other wrongs. . . There may be differences of opinion on the ‘Chief,’ but surely we can agree that vandalism is not the American way to make change.”
The debate may make people uncomfortable. But as Faith Roessel wrote, “If we are uncomfortable with all this, then I am hopeful. It is in our discomfort that we truly learn, let our guard down and have the potential to exercise compassion toward each other.”
Some have argued that the “Chief” sign is folk art, part of Durango’s history, and should be preserved because it is part of the town’s history and heritage as an Old West mining and railroad town. Would some part of that heritage be lost if the sign were removed? Is it an historical artifact in the same vein as a Confederate statue? Or the Bill of Rights, which was partially written by slave owners? Or the Jefferson Memorial, which at least one of his descendants has argued should be destroyed? I’ll ask the question again: When does the past become history rather than a crime? Is it ever acceptable to honor imperfect people who nonetheless did historically great things? Yes, George Washington owned slaves. He also led a ragtag revolutionary army against the world’s finest army at that time—and won. He was our first president and refused to be named king, thus preserving our republic as a democracy. As imperfect as America is, it was still built on democratic principles that we can honor in their intent if not always their execution, and we can continually strive to live up to the promise.
I’ve been approaching the issue of the “Chief” sign by asking myself, what if it were different?
What if I were Jewish, and the sign depicted a caricature of a Jewish man with a hooked nose and greedy eyes instead of a Native American? The Nazis published such images throughout Germany in the 1930s to dehumanize Jews. What if I were a woman and the sign depicted the stereotypical happy housewife of the 50’s wearing an apron and holding a mop? What if I were an African-American and the sign showed a sharecropper picking cotton? Or an Asian-American and the sign, pointing to a gallery selling Asian-American art, was a caricature of a Chinese coolie?
How would I feel differently about the sign if its image depicted my race—my identity as a human being—in a demeaning and stereotypical light? I think as we contemplate the “Chief” sign, or Confederate statues, or the brand name of a syrup, or the mascot of a football team, this is the question we should be asking. Maybe the death of George Floyd will ultimately have served a much higher purpose. Maybe it will have raised our collective consciousness about the impact of names, signs, symbols, and images on our fellow human beings who are in some way different from us but nonetheless an equal part of the patchwork of humanity living on our planet. We can’t change the past and should not try to erase it, but we are not obligated to continue the prejudices and practices of our ancestors or to honor them if doing so dishonors, devalues, or stereotypes others.
As Faith Roessel closed her letter, she wrote, “oRather than trap American Indians in a time warp and depictions not of their making, I believe Durango is ready to embrace a newfound appreciation of modern day native peoples. We are overdue for a relationship that underscores mutual respect and recognition of each other. . . The ‘Indian’ of Durango ought to come down so it no longer casts a shadow over our young Indian students and native community and so that it no longer reinforces a stereotype to the out-of-town visitors who may never have encountered an American Indian in their lives. I do not see myself in the face of that sign. I pray you do not see me in that token image either.”
Durango’s “Chief” sign is privately owned and sits on private property, and that must be respected. Perhaps the solution is not to tear it down but to replace it with a modern sign designed by Native American artists, a sign that is dignified and respectful and still points the way to one of the finest galleries of Native American art in our town. Replacing the sign would be costly, but perhaps some townspeople would contribute toward facilitating the transition of Durango from an Old West town to a New West town, acknowledging the past while creating a more inclusive future. Whatever the owner decides to do with the sign, we should at least use this controversy as an opportunity to have some uncomfortable conversations with each other, to educate ourselves about the effects of stereotypes and tokens, particularly on our children, and to surface the unspoken assumptions we make about each others’ identities. Nothing will change without thoughtful dialogue and a willingness to hear and see others as they really are today instead of whom we assume them to be based on historically prejudicial pigeonholing. Nor will anything change if our purpose in listening to others is not to hear them and understand their point of view but to entrench ourselves in our own arguments and think only of ways to strengthen them.
However flawed Thomas Jefferson might have been (as viewed from a modern perspective), he wrote the words that will forever define American aspiration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal.” We should all aspire to live that truth. We now have the opportunity and obligation to reach that truth together.
Faith Roessel’s comments from her letter are used with permission.
Photo credits: Photo of the “Chief” sign by Terry Bacon; 1950s housewife illustration: ID 42096947 © Retro Clipart | Dreamstime.com; portrait of a Jew by Liusa @ shutterstock.com.