Following talks of removal, Charlemont Indigenous statue headed to Oklahoma

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 08-11-2023 6:13 PM

CHARLEMONT — Since 1974, the giant fiberglass Native American statue outside the Native and Himalayan Views souvenir shop has watched over Route 2.

Now, more than four decades later, the controversial statue is on the move following months of discussions between the store’s owner, the local Native American community and the Charlemont Historical Commission — though the board eventually decided to stay out of the conversation. The statue, which local tribal representatives say perpetuates racial stereotypes, is heading to Vinita, Oklahoma after being purchased by Alan and Beth Hilburn, who operate the Hi-Way Cafe and Western Motel on U.S. Route 66.

The new owners were connected to Native and Himalayan Views owner Sonam Lama, as well as his family friend and representative Bob Pollak, following several discussions about the future of the statue and whether it should be removed or redesigned. Lama, who is currently out of the country, and Pollak worked with the American Giants Museum, an Illinois-based organization dedicated to preserving and telling the story of “muffler men” statues — large advertising icons and roadside attractions that were popularized in the 1960s — to find the Hilburns as interested buyers.

“It’s an imperfect solution, but it’s the best solution we could come up with,” Pollak said as the stone around the statue was being moved Friday morning. He added this is a sort of “compromise” in the discussions the group has had. “Everybody got some of what they wanted.”

Tomantha Sylvester, who is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and works with the Ohketeau Cultural Center in Ashfield, has been facilitating dialogue on the statue in recent months. Sylvester also circulated a petition to remove the statue, which received more than 1,300 signatures and led to communication with Lama and Pollak.

Watching as a crane prepared to lift the statue, Sylvester said she was happy to see it be taken away and while it wasn’t being destroyed, it created a strong discussion on racial stereotypes of Native Americans. She added the statue isn’t even representative of local tribes, but rather of Plains, or Midwest, tribes.

“At this moment in time, it’s a good decision,” Sylvester said. “I think it’s a good first step in creating more dialogue. There’s more work to be done, but we’re certainly in the right direction.”

Hilburn said he intends to display and preserve the statue outside of his two businesses, with the intention of honoring the Indigenous heritage present in Massachusetts and Oklahoma. It will stand alongside another muffler man named Big Bill. The Native American statue, according to Hi-Way Cafe’s Facebook page, is expected to go up in September.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

In wake of damage from 62 mph winds, hundreds left without power
In wake of damage from 62 mph winds, hundreds left without power
Talks reveal disconnect in helping Greenfield’s immigrants
Yankee Candle consolidation prompts loss of 100 jobs
‘Quintessential small-town cop’ ends a chapter: Gill sergeant retiring after 18 years
Northfield seeks new EMS chief upon Fortier’s departure

“It’s going to a good home,” he said. “It’s going to be there in good faith and pride.”

Hilburn noted his wife traces her roots to the Cherokee and Delaware tribes and that they plan to restore the statue as much as possible. Both he and Pollak agreed to not share how much it was purchased for.

“It’s well worth it,” Hilburn said. “We’re going to [restore it] as best we can.”

The history of the statue dates back to the 1960s and ‘70s, when Rodman Shutt, a Pennsylvania sculptor, made larger-than-life pieces across the Northeastern U.S. Shutt has two other sculptures in Maine and New York of Indigenous people, all wearing sacred objects from a variety of different nations from across the Americas.

Along with the sale of the statue, Pollak said Lama is also planning to make other changes to the store to ensure Native American history is properly represented among the Himalayan features at the store. Pollak highlighted changes to the teepees on the property, as well as the removal of canvas that can be misrepresentative of their cultural traditions.

As for the spot the statue leaves behind? Pollak said he is working with Lama to replace the statue with something else “oversized” that is “still an attraction for Charlemont.” One option is a giant moose to stand over Native and Himalayan Views.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

]]>