Amid national unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, renewed calls to remove racially insensitive monuments have spread across the United States. In Durango, this has placed the “Chief,” a giant sign that once advertised the Chief Diner on north Main Avenue and now points at Toh-Atin Gallery, in the cross hairs.
The sign is the subject of two competing Change.org petitions, “Take Down ‘The Chief’ Racist Caricature Sign of Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango, Colorado” and “SAVE THE CHIEF SIGN,” each of which has several thousand signatures. And through the art of Kayla Shaggy, even world-famous kaiju are weighing in on the debate.
Shaggy’s semi-autobiographical comic “Godzilla Decolonizes Durango” describes her personal encounters with racism as a Native American living and working in Durango – up until the King of Monsters shows up in a dream, declares that he will avenge the injustices done to the indigenous residents of the city, and uses his atomic breath to obliterate the Chief.
“The sign is dehumanizing in a rather casual way,” Shaggy said. “It’s not overtly stereotypical or derogatory, but to indigenous people that live in that area that visit the area, they will see it and it’s a sign of how they themselves as a person and their culture is commodified and dehumanized.”
Shaggy said she was working on the comic, one of her first longer-form autobiographical works, for three weeks before the first of the Chief petition campaigns was launched. She said she was inspired to draw the comic after coming up with the visual of Godzilla destroying the sign while driving through downtown Durango, but wanted to input more meaning as to why she wanted Godzilla to destroy the sign. The end result ended up being a complete comic rather than a single image.
When she heard that a the petition against the Chief was launching at the same time as she was finishing up the comic, she added a reference to the petition on the last page to draw readers’ attention to it.
“I think for a long time people were afraid to say something,” Shaggy said. “I think once they realize there’s more people willing to share their thoughts and help actualize the feelings they have, it creates the sort of vehicle for them to take action.”
As for the sign itself, as of June 28, the anti-Chief petition was at about 4,420 signatures, while the pro-Chief one had about 3,330.
On June 17, Durango Mayor Dean Brookie told The Durango Herald the sign is on private property, and therefore the city has no authority or say whether the sign comes down.
After the Chief was vandalized on the night of June 19, Toh-Atin co-owner Antonia Clark told the Herald she is open to conversations about what to do with the sign, but making that decision is of secondary importance to keeping the art gallery open through the COVID-19 pandemic.