Controversy has erupted in West Asheville over the removal of “Chief Pontiac” the 23-foot-tall Native American statue that looks down on the town from car dealership Harry’s On The Hill.
The decision was made to take down the statue after a customer who is a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee published an account of a racist incident with a Harry’s salesman in the local Cherokee One Feather newspaper writing, “Discrimination and hate are out there and going to Harry’s on the Hill; I got to experience it first-hand.”
Over 450 comments have been made on Harry’s Facebook post issuing an apology for the incident as well as the statue’s removal and the employee’s termination. The comments range from support for the removal to outright racism against Native Americans.
Editor of the One Feather Robert Jumper says this is the first time that the paper has ever published a specific story of discrimination and racism in the paper. However, they do publish general complaints from incidents inside and outside the tribe about once or twice a month. The Cherokee One Feather is the official paper of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
While Jumper is hurt that a member of the community when through this experience, he is happy with the outcome: a chance for education.
“Obviously as a tribal member it’s offensive and hurtful to see people who are for the lack of a better term ‘ignorant.’ They don’t understand the history and the relationship that Native Americans have and the role of what transpired between the Europeans when they came in and influenced Native American culture,” says Jumper. “There is a whole backstory that people don’t understand when they make racist comments or statements. So certainly that’s offensive. However, it’s exciting when people engage.”
Jumper, who has been working at One Feather for 5 years, is glad that his paper can be a voice for his community.
“It’s very important when you live in a community - whether its in surrounding counties or on the Qualla Boundary - to know the culture and history, whether it’s Appalachian history or whether it’s Cherokee history. You should know the culture that you are living in,” says Jumper.
The paper is how Harry’s found out about the incident on May 31st when a member of their staff showed them the article.
Anna Grimes, a member of the Harry’s management team, says that they have been inundated with thousands of calls, messages and Facebook comments since they have announced the removal of the statue.
Grimes’ great grandfather opened Harry’s originally as a one-pump station in 1923 and erected the statue at the dealership in 1967 as a “Muffler Man” advertisement for the then-Pontiac dealership.
Chief Pontiac, who was once part of the logo for now-defunct Pontiac brand, was an Ottowa chief, who became well-known for his role in a revolt against the British after the French and Indian War. It is unknown if the brand name should be attributed to the chief or to the town that bears his name.
Many commenters see the statue as a piece of Asheville history and are upset that the dealership will be removing it.
“It’s been really hard. We’ve been here for a long time. And we’ve done a lot of good things. It’s hard and a bit frustrating that this is kind of where the focus is going,” says Grimes. “I know that people have very strong feelings about Chief Pontiac. I mean, I do too. He’s been there my whole life growing up. But we do feel like this is the appropriate time for him to find a new home.”
Patricia Grimes, principal dealer and part-owner of the family business, was out of town due to a family medical emergency at the time of publication. The date for the removal is not yet set. The dealership is still looking for the best option to preserve Chief Pontiac.
BPR receives support from Harry’s on the Hill.