Born and raised in Denver, 58-year-old Kendra Black
has been up and down Colorado Boulevard too many times to count. But she'd never given much thought to the figure of an Indigenous child that stands above a carpet store at 2024 South Colorado Boulevard.
"It's been there as long as I can remember," says the Denver City Council member.
But in November, Littleton resident Kelly Ryan sent a message asking if Black knew of any efforts "to get rid of the large and racially offensive 'Mohawk Tommy' signage" in front of Westcraft Carpets
, which is in her council district.
Mohawk Tommy, a shirtless boy sporting a mohawk haircut with a feather in back, was a 1950s Walt Disney Company cartoon creation that Mohawk Carpets — now Mohawk Industries — used in its advertising. You can still see the figure in dolls, drawings and even rugs available on eBay...and on that sign on South Colorado Boulevard.
The Mohawk Tommy outside of Westcraft Carpets, which carries Mohawk products, once had hands that were motor-operated and banged a small drum. The drumming feature no longer works, and the sign is "in very poor condition," says Black. "The paint is peeling and there’s no longer arms."
"I come at it just from purely 'That shouldn’t be.' That shouldn’t still be. That sign shouldn’t still be up there," says Ryan, who also sent information about Native Americans to the Westcraft owners but never got a response.
On the receiving end of those emails was Matt Vagts, grandson of the founder of Westcraft, who works in the family business.
"This guy baited me," Vagts says, noting that Ryan had originally emailed to say he wanted to buy carpeting, only to quickly switch to asking the store to remove the sign. "This guy has harassed me for a year and a half. He’s got some mission. He’s the one that has spawned all of this. It isn’t the Mohawk tribe."
After receiving Ryan's note, Black reached out to Darius Smith, director of the Denver Anti-Discrimination Office
. Smith, who's Navajo, serves as the staff liaison to the Denver American Indian Commission
Smith called Westcraft Carpets to leave a "really nice message," he recalls.
"I said, 'Hey, we want to set up a meeting with them and the [Denver] Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships and just talk about this,'" Smith says. "And [Matt Vagts] called me back and was very confrontational."
The conversation calmed down after the two started talking about something they had in common: They'd both attended public school in Denver. Smith went to Montbello High School and Vagts went to South High School
"His high school recently changed their mascot from the Rebel to the Raven," Smith says. But after they chatted about that for a while, Vagts "talked about how they were honoring the Mohawk and that this was a gift by Disney, and...that this political correctness was wrong."
Smith got a call from John Vagts, Matt's father, a day later.
Westcraft Carpets is located at 2024 South Colorado Boulevard.
Courtesy of Colin Puth
"We had a good conversation. He again talked about how this was a gift from Walt Disney and it’s appropriate and what’s the harm?" Smith recalls. "He kind of talked about the political correctness of it all, and he pays taxes here in Denver and he pays my salary. I said, 'Thank you,' and 'Let’s continue to have this conversation.'"
John Vagts said he'd talk with a lawyer. And then he stopped returning Smith's calls.
After a few months had passed, Smith asked Raven Payment to help sort things out. Payment has served on the Denver American Indian Commission since April; she's Mohawk herself. The Mohawk people, whose original name is Kanien'kehá꞉ka, are from what is now upstate New York and areas to the north and south.
"I talked to some family members back home, whom we would consider elders. I figured out where, essentially, Disney created Tommy Mohawk and Mini Mohawk," Payment says. "Disney did not create that character in tandem, acceptance or association with any Native people."
Payment then drafted a letter for the Denver American Indian Commission, which was mailed to John Vagts on June 10.
The letter made it clear that the DAIC was requesting the removal of the Tommy Mohawk sign. It noted that the caricature is "cultural appropriation," "highlights the legacy of dehumanizing imagery against Indigenous people," and is not "endorsed by the Mohawk people."
"As neighbors and fellow community members, we believe that no one deserves to see their heritage insulted, no matter how old the imagery may be. It is for these reasons that the DAIC requests Westcraft Carpets and Flooring remove the Tommy Mohawk sign," the letter concluded.
"When I see this image of this little so-called Indian boy, I'm like, 'That’s not even what we really look like. We don’t dress like that. It’s just these images that are given to us,'" Payment says. "It’s salt in the wound."
The Denver American Indian Commission has not received a response from anyone at Westcraft.
"It’s culturally insensitive, and I hope that the owners will be respectful to the culture of the Mohawk people and remove it," says Black. "They sent that very thoughtful letter. I don’t know why someone wouldn’t remove it after reading that letter."
Matt Vagts hasn't read the letter, he says; his father is on vacation.
"We’re a third-generation family that’s been here since 1954. My grandfather put this sign up. It was the only caricature that Walt Disney actually sold to a corporation," Vagts explains. "It’s not meant to be derogatory toward Native Americans." His own mother is a quarter Native American, he adds.
"Our perspective of this is the sign is a manufacturer's logo and mascot," he notes. At Mohawk Industries conferences, he points out, the carpet brand brings a large mascot version of Mohawk Tommy, and people pose next to it for photos.
Earlier this month, Vagts says, he emailed the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, which is located in Quebec and New York, to get advice on what to do with the sign.
The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne has not yet sent an official response. However, it has a standard policy for situations such as this.
"We’ve never been in support of anything related to caricatures or things depicting stereotypes of Native Americans or First Nations individuals. To support this one would be in direct conflict with how we view these types of incidences. We are not in support of this sign," says Corine Francis, executive assistant to the Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.
At the same time, Francis commends Matt Vagts for reaching out, calling his handling of the situation "very respectable."
If he does get a letter from the council asking for the sign to be removed, "We’ll strongly consider it," says Matt Vagts. "We’re not here to insult a culture. But we are also a very long-withstanding business. We’ve been here a long time, 68 years. It’s a landmark sign."
But that doesn't justify keeping up something that's offensive, according to Payment. "Ideally, the sign will come down and we can all move on from it."
If not, though, "I feel like it may generate a further conversation where they may end up finding the Indigenous community at their front door," she adds. "That might be the next step if they don’t take it down."