Durango City Council plans to take a stand on the controversial “Chief” sign, but first councilors want to hear from those most affected.
The sign, across from Toh-Atin Gallery, has drawn controversy sporadically over the years from some residents. And this month, two Change.org petitions began circulating online, drawing thousands of signatures. One advocates taking down the sign; the other, keeping it up.
City councilors did not make an official statement when they met this week, but Mayor Dean Brookie said he plans to release a statement as mayor, hopefully with council support.
“My sense is we have some urgency here to engage in this conversation, and I think the city has some responsibility to engage the property owner in an appropriate discussion,” Brookie said.
Brookie requested a late addition to the council’s agenda Tuesday so councilors could formulate their responses in order to take a stand “on this one way or the other and then enter into some communication with the property owner,” he said.
The petition that calls for the sign’s removal is supported by those who see it as a racist, degrading and offensive caricature that reinforces stereotypes about Indigenous people. More than 3,500 people had signed the petition as of Thursday.
The other petition advocates keeping the sign up, saying it is a piece of history because it has been in Durango since the 1950s. That petition had gathered more than 2,800 signatures as of Thursday.
In the meantime, someone vandalized the sign. The gallery’s owner, Jackson Clark, released a statement saying his family works closely with Native American people, and the owners do not view the sign as a derogatory image, as they know many people today who dress in the same way.
“As far as the Chief being a symbol of racism, since he went up at the Chief Diner near 80 years ago, he has actually been a sign that welcomed Native people to the diner and, later, to the gallery,” Clark said.
Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis College, and Ernest House Jr., chairman of the FLC Board of Trustees and member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, weighed in on the debate. They called for the Chief to come down in an op-ed published in The Durango Herald.
The officials recalled the college’s own process of removing whitewashed pictures of the Native American experience in governmental boarding schools from the FLC clocktower. They emphasized the importance of having a reconciliation-oriented discussion around what to do with the sign.
“Whatever action is taken or not taken by private property owners should not overshadow the important questions that must be asked and answered about continued racial inequality and disparities,” they said.
The city of Durango has not received a formal petition from community members who support or oppose the sign.
“I’m looking for that milestone to happen, an official submittal to the city, so that we can officially react,” Brookie said. “In the meantime, I think there’s a number of conversations that the topic has brought up that we need to move forward.”
During the councilors’ discussion, Councilor Kim Baxter suggested reaching out for more community input and reviewing the city’s sign code to see if it has something about offensive content – whether it’s allowed and how it is defined.
“You have competing interests here between what some people might find offensive and First Amendment controls over what people are allowed to put on signs,” said Dirk Nelson, Durango city attorney. “That doesn’t mean we can’t engage with property owners about dealing with signs that our community believes are inappropriate.”
Councilor Barbara Noseworthy suggested reaching out to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe or FLC’s Center of Southwest Studies to discuss the sign’s meaning to affected populations.
“There’s an opportunity for a conversation around this,” Noseworthy said.
Center of Southwest Studies and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe who represented Colorado in the U.S. Congress from 1987 to 2005, said it is one person’s rights against another’s.
“Since it’s on private land and privately owned, I’m not sure what input the City Council would have to say on it,” he said.
He said Native American people might be reluctant to speak in public forums, in part because they are “a people that’s been beat down for generations and negatively stereotyped.”
“City Council should hear from Native people personally, particularly tribes in the surrounding area. It should allow Jackson the right to bring in Native people who support the sign. Mainly, vandalizing the sign is the wrong way to make social change,” Campbell said.