The oversized, cartoon sign of an American Indian pointing to a place of business has outlived its moment.
The Chief belongs in a museum not on a downtown street. He belongs with his historic advertising brethren like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima.
Created 80 years ago, the larger-than-life, comic figure once had a job: pointing customers to a Durango eating establishment: The 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 Since then, The Chief has continued to fulfill a classic, if outdated, trope in American advertising – show the customer where to go.
He needs to move on again. A museum is a reasonable destination for a controversial artifact whether it is a Confederate statue or an outdated version of a minority population.
Here are five suggestions for finding a more appropriate home and reframing The Chief’s place in Western American history:
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., and
5. The National Museum for American Indian Art and Culture, also in D.C.
The Chief could be part of an exhibit about cultural stereotyping within the larger context of American business practices.
The owners of Toh-Atin Gallery could make a grand gesture and donate The Chief. Better yet, a generous benefactor could also support an exhibition of Post-World War II changes in American advertising. Yes, it’s all about context.
To be more specific, The Chief could merge 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, and he would be in the company of other dated advertising luminaries such as Betty Crocker, the Land O’ Lakes maiden, and any number of stereotyped sports mascots. The curatorial staff could put The Chief in context and tell Durango’s story amid larger national trends.
Closer to home, Center of Southwest Studies has a spacious, high-ceilinged gallery in which he could stand in the midst of an exhibition of American commerce in the 20th-century. 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 and company could mount something significant by focusing on the history of advertising in the Southwest.
Or, The Chief could travel to Denver to the magnificent History Colorado Museum. Check out the website www.historycolorado.org. 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 interpreted intelligently and placed in a fresh context, The Chief can educate us about stereotyping and what it means to live through tumultuous times. We might even learn how attitudes shift and acquire new interpretations
Judith Reynolds is an art historian and arts journalist.