Chief concerns

Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, Telegraph opinion page cartoonist Shan Wells signed off, passing the mantel to under-represented voices in our society, particularly women and people of color. Since then, two FLC alums, Kayla Shaggy, a Diné artist originally from Shiprock, and Tatyana Trujillo, an activist, artist and social advocate earning a graduate degree in Chicana/o studies, bravely picked up the pen.

Last week, Shaggy wasted no time diving headlong into controversial waters with her cartoon (erroneously attributed to Trujillo, our bad) advocating for the removal of The Chief sign at the Toh-Atin Gallery. She – and others – see the towering, cartoonish Native American as racially offensive and insensitive to indigenous people.

Our in-box was immediately flooded with letters of protest from community members, friends of the Clarks, a longstanding local family that owns Toh-Atin, and  Antonia Clark herself (who did not want her letter printed). Some objected, saying the cartoon wrongly portrayed the Clarks as racists. Yes, we will admit the cartoon walked a fine line, referring to “racist imagery” and “abusing indigenous culture,” but it did not call anybody a racist. Meanwhile, others took issue that the cartoon did not focus on the good things the Clarks do for Native Americans, specifically during the pandemic. Still other critics said the cartoon was mean-spirited or in bad taste; noted the sign is on private land; and one questioned if there would be such a flap if The Chief were a smiling white cowboy.

Others asked why the Clarks weren’t contacted about the cartoon. (Kayla did reach out to them with her concerns in a lengthy email last June but did not get a response until this week.) And still others said screw cancelling The Chief, cancel the Telegraph (we knew it was only a matter of time till #cancelculture caught up with us, too.)

In other words, it struck a nerve.  

Let us be clear, while we knew the cartoon would be thought-provoking and not exactly liked by everyone, we certainly did not intend it to be deeply offensive – just as the gallery owners likely did not intend The Chief to be offensive when they hoisted it over downtown all those years ago. That we did not spend more time considering the full implications of the cartoon, we apologize. But we stop short of apologizing for the underlying message of the cartoon itself. For starters, it would be disingenuous and hollow to apologize for another person’s feelings and viewpoints. And secondly, it just might be time for The Chief, in his current form, to wave goodbye. There, we said it. The sign is a dated trope at best; a painful reminder of this country’s dark oppressive history at worst.

But then again, does it really matter what we think? The whole point of passing the artistic torch to those who have been marginalized and silenced is to let them be heard. We are sorry if the voice came across as too loud or harsh for some, but perhaps it is because for far too long, no one has been listening. Maybe it’s time we start.

Meanwhile, here are some of this week’s letters.