La Crosse community debates on future of ‘Hiawatha’ statue

By Ken Luchterhand

Further discussions of a Native American statute in Riverside Park in La Crosse are continuing, with a meeting about the issue on Thursday, Jan. 4, at the Ni Tani Hocira, or Three Rivers House, in La Crosse.
At the center of the debate is whether a 25-foot sculpture named “Hiawatha” should remain at the park or taken down, with residents speaking on either issue of the issue.
No formal move has been made to remove the statue, but the issue is continuing to draw further heated discussions.
The main question is whether the statue is degrading to the Ho-Chunk people, the original inhabitants of the area, or if it should remain as art or a historical landmark.
At the meeting Thursday night, several tribal members spoke at the meeting, including Jon Greendeer, director of the Ho-Chunk Nation Heritage Preservation Department. Approximately 90 to 100 people were in attendance. Tracy Littlejohn and Elizabeth Digby-Britten, home school coordinators with the Ho-Chunk Nation, organized the meeting.
As a historical perspective, a Chamber-County-City Tourist Publicity Committee (CCCTPC) stemming from the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce commissioned a statue in the 1950s to serve as a tourist attraction.  The committee chose local art teacher Anthony Zimmerhakl to create the statue, who chose to base the statue on the fictional version of Hiawatha from poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Zimmerhakl completed the statue after four years of work in his backyard with the help of his children.
In January 1960, it was erected in Riverside Park. In 1961 and 1962, the CCCTPC offered “Hiawatha” as its name, although many people opposed the name. Other names were proposed, but ultimately, in 1962, the statue became known as “Hiawatha,” although the original statue was created as a mixture of all Native American cultures.
In 2000, people became concerned about the appearance of the statue.  It was cracked, parts had fallen off and it had been whitewashed.  Despite the original agreement that the Chamber of Commerce would be financially responsible for the maintenance, it at some point was abandoned and being in a city park, fell into the city’s domain.  Unfortunately, the city did not have the funds to properly care for the statue.
Debates occurred in 2000 in regards to its purpose, intent, relevance and for some, racist stereotype.  Eventually, private citizens fundraised to help with repairing and re-painting the statue.  The painting was done in such a way to reflect Ho-Chunk attire.
The city spent $35,000, including $16,395 in private donations, to restore the statue.
Since that time, 17 years later, the existence of the statue is again in question.
“All I can do is provide my opinion, as a Ho-Chunk woman who has lived in La Crosse for 41 years,” Littlejohn said. “My father had told me that his father offered to help Mr. Zimmerhakl with the statue’s image, but was told he wasn’t needed since the artist had books to reference.  At no point was the statue intended to represent the Ho-Chunk, the original inhabitants of this area. It was a tourist attraction.
“I don’t doubt the fact when I’ve heard that Mr. Zimmerhakl appreciated Native American culture, however it seems it may have been based on books that we know today were not accurate and were written from the viewpoint when Native Americans were still primarily seen as savage, speaking with broken English and ‘uncivilized.’ Even though there were already Native American physicians, teachers, and pro athletes for years prior,” she said. 
Littlejohn pointed out how studies show how stereotypes undermine the self-esteem and healthy identities of marginalized groups such Native Americans.
“Inter-generational trauma, racism, white supremacist systems and a loss of history and culture due to forced assimilation has taken its toll on our communities.  We have the highest suicide rates of any group; the greatest achievement gaps in schools and highest drop-out rates of any population,” Littlejohn said.
On the flip side of the coin, people are supporting it to remain in Riverside Park both as a historical landmark and a significant work of art.
“I’m not sure how you erect art, whether you hang it on the wall or put it in the park, and expect to please everybody, because that ain’t going to happen,” said La Crosse Arts Board member Dick Record at a previous meeting.
La Crosse Common Council member Gary Padesky said that it was built as a way to honor a culture he felt was important and the city should not remove art based on its possible offensiveness.
“There are a lot of us who had Mr. Zimmerhakl as a teacher, who grew up here, who have a lot of personal feelings for that statue or of art in particular,” Padesky said at a previous meeting.
Over the years, Littlejohn’s opinion of the statue has changed as she became more aware of what it might represent.
“I remember listening to the voice that boomed from the foot of the statue when I was a child.  In that era, I did not know who Hiawatha was to know it would be insulting to the people he came from.  To me, it was cool that one of the stories I knew was mentioned,” she said.
“But as I’ve gotten older, became a parent and now work with Native American youth, I can in no way be okay with the statue staying where it is.  It does not reflect accurately local history, it does not teach anything but a stereotypical native man in a mish mash of clothes from different tribes, and it reminds us that the only Indian most people recognize is one from history books, not of all we’ve endured and achieved since settlers began arriving in the mid-1800s,” Littlejohn said. 
She disagrees with those who might want to keep the statue based on tradition.
“Our versions of tradition may be different. Sixty-six years of a tourist attraction versus the thousands of years the Ho-Chunk have been around is a huge gap,” she said. “There are plenty of other wonderful things in La Crosse to visit such as the bluff, the parks themselves, downtown retailers, and the Pump House mural.” 
Littlejohn believes it’s time to retire “Hiawatha.”
“Having been made out of concrete, it was never going to survive.  Now that we’re hearing there’s a time capsule in his ribcage, Mr. Zimmerhakl knew that at some point, his creation would be past its prime.  His sincere intent is not doubted, but the affect it can have on people must be considered,” Littlejohn said.
“Yes, it is just one statue, how much harm can it do?  Well when it’s not the only thing we see on a regular basis, things pile up and can actually destroy a life.  Is it fair to ignore the emotional well-being of a people already suffering from white supremacist history just to keep an expensive, stereotypical photo opportunity standing?” she asked.
“Please, he needs to go,” Littlejohn said.