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Event to discuss ‘Indigenous mascots’ is abruptly canceled in Durango

Community conversation called off shortly after Toh-Atin Gallery co-owner sends email
A panel discussion about Indigenous mascots and cultural appropriation was abruptly canceled after an email from Toh-Atin Gallery co-owner Antonia Clark. Toh-Atin Gallery’s “the chief” has been a point of conflict for many who argue the statue is cultural appropriation, racist and harms Indigenous people. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A panel discussion was supposed to bring the Durango community together to discuss and address Indigenous mascots and cultural appropriation.

But the event was abruptly canceled last week shortly after Antonia Clark, co-owner of Toh-Atin Gallery, sent an email to the Durango Creative District’s executive director and board of directors urging caution surrounding the event.

“I appreciate your interest in Indigenous people and your involvement in the arts, but my personal belief is that you are being manipulated into an ambush on us,” Clark wrote in the email which was obtained by The Durango Herald.

“I expect that, in spite of your best efforts, this discussion will be a Toh-Atin bashing, which will accomplish nothing,” the email goes on to say. “If you want to accomplish something, talk about public art ideas and locations ... something that the public has some influence on. If you want to derail the ‘Toh-Atin bashing’ forum, you might want to remind people that we are not a public entity, we are a private business and what we do with our property is and always will be our decision. Wasting hours talking about The Chief will be a waste of time.”

In the wake of the event’s cancellation, Hayley Kirkman, executive director of the Durango Creative District, a nonprofit that helps oversee a state-recognized creative district, resigned.

The panel was scheduled to take place from 5 to 7 p.m. tonight at the Durango Arts Center. It was to feature five Indigenous panelists from several tribes, including the Diné, Laguna Pueblo, Apache, Southern Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.

Four Borderless Corners, an Indigenous justice activist group, organized the event in coordination with the Durango Creative District and the Durango Arts Center. The event was also being sponsored by Ignacio’s KSUT radio station, the nonprofit ManKind Project Southwest and the city of Durango.

Only a few days after the email was sent on Nov. 18 the event was canceled by the Durango Creative District and the Durango Arts Center without notice.

Organizers for Four Borderless Corners took to Facebook to voice their displeasure:

“Four Borderless Corners would like to publicly announce that we have been forced to cancel our upcoming event Community Conversation: Indigenous Mascots because the Durango Arts Center and the Durango Creative District board withdrew their support based on an attempt to vilify, silence, and discredit our organizers and presenters,” Four Borderless Corners wrote in a message posted on Facebook. “This is white supremacy and racism in action.”

In the email, Clark took aim at Trennie Burch-Collins and other panelists, saying they have been unfriendly toward the gallery and “the chief” sign.

“My short history with Trennie was documented in my oped in the Herald … Her famous Facebook post regarding the Chief was ‘Tear it down, smash it up, burn it and then let the White gallery owner pay a NA artist to replace it. Easy...’ Anyone who advocates violence against us is not our friend, and no one I want to speak with again,” Clark wrote. “These are not representative of good Native people.”

Jackson Clark, another co-owner of Toh-Atin Gallery, said he had no knowledge of the meeting and was out of town.

“We don’t have a mascot, we have a sign,” he said.

Neither Four Borderless Corners nor the Durango Creative District could be reached for comment.

Brenda Macon, executive director of the Durango Arts Center, declined to give a phone interview, but in an emailed statement to the Herald wrote:

“The event ‘Community Panel on Indigenous Mascots’ on Dec. 2 has been postponed until an agreement can be reached regarding the use of the DAC facilities. DAC welcomes the opportunity to host engaging discussions on current topics.”

She went on to say that organizers must follow three stipulations to reschedule the event:

  • The event would need to be well-articulated with an identified outcome that includes education, artistic enrichment and partnership in a spirit of peace.
  • The event requires a facilities rental agreement for all users of the premises.
  • The event would have to follow COVID-19 safety protocol as articulated in the facilities use agreement.

Macon declined to say why the Arts Center, as facility host, is invested in ensuring the conversation is “well-articulated with an identified outcome.” But in a follow-up statement, she wrote that the original panel proposal had changed without consultation.

“This event was originally proposed to the DAC as an opportunity for the community to discuss artwork that might replace the sign at the Toh-Atin gallery downtown. The DAC initially appreciated the notion of hosting a public discussion on local art visible to the public,” Macon wrote in the follow-up statement.

The Durango Arts Center was told that a private donor had offered $80,000 to a local artist if “the chief” was to be removed and replaced, according to the statement.

“As a host, the DAC took no position on the issue, and viewed its hosting role as an opportunity for an amicable conversation with all parties involved. Unfortunately, the original proposal changed without advance notice to DAC,” Macon wrote.

Marketing materials were created before the Durango Arts Center was consulted, the Arts Center could not verify the private donor or reach an outside event coordinator, and the owners of the Toh-Atin Gallery were not invited, among others issues, Macon said.

Kirkman, who resigned as executive director of the Durango Creative District, said Antonia Clark was invited to participate.

“I had previously invited Antonia to join the event, and communicated our intentions to have a productive and educational conversation on the larger topic of cultural appropriation,” Kirkman wrote in an emailed statement to the Herald. “The community was (and still is) looking forward to learning how to be better allies and advocates to Indigenous people.

“In the spirit of democracy, I believe this community needs to have a transparent conversation about what’s going on rather than allowing the Clarks to sweep the dissenting opinions under the rug. This is not a Native issue that white people need to sympathize with; this is a white issue that rests in the hands of the community to resolve (through conversation and nonviolent activism),” she added.

The Indigenous mascots panel was set to feature five Indigenous panelists from several tribes, including the Diné, Laguna Pueblo, Apache, Southern Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute tribes on Thursday evening at the Durango Arts Center.

Indigenous activists have argued for the removal of culturally appropriative mascots for years.

“The chief,” a large caricature of an Indigenous man that sits outside Toh-Atin Gallery at 145 W. Ninth St. in downtown Durango, has been a point of contention for some who argue the statue is cultural appropriation, racist and harms Indigenous people.

More than 100 people called for the removal of the statue during a march in downtown Durango on Indigenous Peoples Day.

Four Borderless Corners created a GoFundMe campaign in October 2020 with a goal of raising $20,000 to remove “the chief.”

A Change.org petition started a year ago asking the city of Durango and Toh-Atin Gallery to take down the statue had received 7,720 signatures as of this week.

A counter petition to save “the chief” had received more than 4,600 signatures.

In June, the Colorado Legislature banned the use of Native American mascots in almost all public schools.

“Passing legislation to retire all American Indian mascots in the state will provide another step toward justice and healing to the descendants of the survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, most notably the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, as well as other American Indians in Colorado who have been harmed or offended by these discriminatory mascots,” the bill read.

Durango resident and House District 59 state Rep. Barbara McLachlan was a principal sponsor of the bill.

The Native American Guardian’s Association, a Native American education nonprofit, sued the state in November arguing that the ban violated the First and 14th amendments.

A recent ruling by the judge in the case indicated that the lawsuit may be quickly resolved in favor of those who oppose the bill.

Though the event was canceled, Four Borderless Corners wrote on Facebook the group plans to hold the panel and engage the Durango community in discussion.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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