The Rise and Fall of the “Big Indian” Statue

By Kevin Hundt

In the past few weeks since La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat ordered the removal of the “Hiawatha” statue in Riverside Park, the usual debate over history, nostalgia, and representation has once again sprung to life like an improperly disposed-of vampire.

The recent history of indigenous opposition to the statue starts twenty years ago, when Tracy Littlejohn, Matthew Stewart, and Dan Green (Kera Cho Mani ga) led an unsuccessful campaign to get rid of it rather than repairing extensive cracks and fading paint. In the mid-2000s, they organized student marches and rallies against it for Indigenous People’s Day. Dan Green has written and spoken against what he calls “the Colossus of Kitsch” and featured in the 2015 University of Wisconsin – La Crosse student documentary “Patterns.” 

After the election of Trump, fascists marching in the street across the country, and toppling of pro-Confederate monuments, various community members and organizations ramped up a renewed effort to remove the statue, culminating in a 2018 agreement for the family of the sculptor, Anthony Zimmerhakl, to take possession of it and move it to private land elsewhere. 

Now, two years later, with the family having not having found a location nor the money to transport it, and with the George Floyd uprising in the air, Mayor Kabat kicked off the newest and strongest effort yet to remove the statue by sending a letter to the the Board of Park Commissioners (which controls city parks) asking for the statue to be removed.  This was supported by community members asking them to follow through with Kabat’s request. At the same time, several members of the City Council attempted to slow down the process by asking the board to delay their decision until August so the Council could weigh in, or by coming up with entirely new proposals despite having years to work on it.

Opponents to removing the statue have stated many reasons to keep it, which have fallen under a handful of general categories, namely nostalgia, misconceptions about the origins of the statue, or a belief that it somehow honors Native Americans.  

Nostalgia primarily manifests as people saying that they would be sad to see the statue go because they either grew up while it existed or they knew the sculptor.  The misconceptions about the origins of the statue include the idea that it was initially intended to honor Native Americans (often with unsubstantiated claims that Zimmerhakl was part Native American or had researched traditional clothing), that it was donated to the city by the artist or some other group, or that it didn’t become controversial until recently.

Nostalgia isn’t something that can be reasonably debated, so it’s up to people to decide if their nostalgia is more important than indigenous members of the community. However, clearing up factual misconceptions about the statue simply takes a trip through the relevant archival documents.

The Statue Debate 60 Years Ago

In the mid 1950s, the La Crosse County Retail Gasoline Dealers Association (with representatives from local Standard, Phillips 66, Shell, Mobil, Conoco, and Cities Service stations) asked the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce to come up with ways to drum up more business for them. Car tourism being a relatively novel form of entertainment, this was the era of the roadside attraction. The statue here was hardly unique, having been prefigured by “Cigar Store Indian” statues and other similar statues across the country (take note of the dates on the linked page, as they cover a wide range to almost the present day).  

The name “Hiawatha” was chosen in 1958 by the Chamber of Commerce and Chamber-City-County Tourism Committee because of the Longfellow poem “The Song of Hiawatha”  and the so-called “Hiawatha Valley” tourism area, which had been designated decades earlier as the stretch of the Mississippi between La Crosse and Hastings, Minnesota.

Opposition began immediately in 1958, with Alvin Blackdeer, president of the Winnebago Indians Veteran Association, and William Koch, a local historian, writing letters published in the Tribune declaring that a Hiawatha statue would be an affront to local history and Winnebago/Ho-Chunk identity in their homeland. 

They were later joined by the local AFL-CIO union, Badger State Sportsmen’s Club, and Outdoors Unlimited. Note, however, that this opposition was almost entirely about the name of the statue rather than its existence; these individuals and groups wanted the statue named Decorah, for the prominent Ho-Chunk family which had produced many of the leaders of that nation and of the village which was where La Crosse now stands.

The debate raged for three years, with apparently no less ferocity than the one of the present day. There was opposition to the location of the statue in Riverside Park, which was conceived of as having a “formal” tone which would clash with the pop/kitsch look of the statue (1); the Chamber countered that the Riverside location would provide “easy access” for tourists and downtown shopping, provide a photogenic backdrop, and create “definite story values for publicity releases.”

An alderman described opposition to the statue in Tribune opinion letters as “harassing.”  In the end, the City Council in September 1961 voted 14-7 to allow the Chamber of Chamber-City-County Tourism Committee to name the statue.  An 8 foot by 10 foot sign was placed next to the statue: “This Indian is symbolic of all of the Indians of the area and is dedicated particularly to the braves of the Winnebagoes. Among the most famous was Chief Decorah and his son, Chief Winneshiek. La Crosse started as a trading post in Indian territory. Trail and river led to the prairie, a favorite gathering place for the Indians. The French called it Prairie La Crosse for a game they saw the Indians playing which reminded them of their own game of La Crosse.” 

The Chamber and affiliated organizations were concerned with history and respect for Native Americans only to the absolute minimum level necessary to pay lip service to the concepts. The Chamber-City-County Tourism Committee, in a three-page press release in 1962, spent a quarter of one page making an argument approaching a historical perspective, declaring that the La Crosse Prairie was not solely used by the Ho-Chunk, therefore a Hiawatha statue is appropriate as a symbol for all Native Americans, since the Longfellow poem about him gave him “the finest virtues of all Indians.” The letter also states the sign next to the statue “serves the historical interests without diluting the tourist-attracting potentials of a statue named Hiawatha” (the Committee’s sole concern being tourism).

The letter concludes by stating that “The Committee … has confirmed the decision to call it’s [sic] statue ‘HIAWATHA’.” (emphasis in original).  The only reasonable interpretation for the underlining is that its purpose is to express resentment that anyone could even question the Committee’s authority and ownership over the statue. 

In 1960, in a letter to the Parks Board, the City-County Tourist Committee also declared that “the committee assumes the responsibilities, financial and otherwise, for the installation, maintenance, repair and lighting of the statue.”  However, in 1997 the City Parks Department spent $8,000 on refurbishments, and after the decision to keep it in 2000 the City spent another $35,000 on repairs and repainting.

Historical Context

What the Chamber of Commerce, local media, and other white residents and institutions really thought about the statue, history, and the humanity of indigenous people is more clearly revealed by how they framed and discussed the stories, rather than the content.  The Tribune ran stories with titles such as “Indians On Warpath Against Chamber Unit” and “Got ‘Em Injun, But No Name”.

The Chamber and City-County Tourist Committee routinely described Native Americans in belittling and caricatured terms, with probably the worst example being found in the September 1961 La Crosse Chamber of Commerce Newsletter.  Titled “Pass The Peace Pipe?,” this article uses six stereotypical cliches in just two paragraphs (peace pipe, heap big, many moons, wampum, scalps, smoke signals), and the last paragraph calls the statue a “silent warrior” (despite the Chamber insisting that Hiawatha was admirable because he was a peacemaker) and then inexplicably, but certainly mockingly, compares it to comedian Jimmy Durante.  

Hopefully this dispels any doubt that the Chamber, at least, considered Native Americans to be stereotypes rather than real people. Incidentally, this article also explicitly admits that “the committee’s only aim is to promote the tourist industry and the resulting wampum that it brings.”

The dehumanization of the indigenous people of this hemisphere began as soon as Columbus landed, enslaving Taino people and beginning the Spanish, Portuguese, and later English enslavement and genocides. Europeans considered them to be objects; either potential slaves or obstacles to colonization and resource extraction. 

“American Progress” by John Gast, 1872/Public Domain.

The idea that Europeans were entitled to this continent was later articulated as “Manifest Destiny”. This left the historical role of indigenous people to be, essentially, keeping the seat warm for ‘civilization’; as Caleb Atwater put it in his travel memoir about a visit to Prairie du Chien in 1829, “In their manners, the aborigines of the North West, resemble the people of the earliest ages of the world” (Mr. Atwater also spent large swaths of his book describing how the Ho-Chunk, Sac, Dakota, and other nations should be forcibly assimilated and civilized for their own good, and so that white Americans would be able to turn their lands into estates and cities).

This process played out in La Crosse in an extremely visceral way. Downtown La Crosse is largely built on the graves of Ho-Chunk people and earlier cultures. The Ho-Chunk village that existed before removal and the construction of La Crosse was located approximately at the site of the Oktoberfest grounds, just a few feet away from the statue. The homes and graves of indigenous people were considered by settlers to be, essentially, debris.

White settler-colonial culture reconciles these atrocities by dehumanizing indigenous people, but also by inventing a new mythology of the “noble savage”.  This is what the City-County Tourist Publicity Committee described as “the finest virtues of all indians”.  In this mythology, Native Americans have a set of immutable racial attributes, particularly an intuitive connection to nature, cleverness (but not deliberative intelligence), far-seeing wisdom (but not the ability to plan, organize, or intentionally affect the future), a tough constitution and warlike demeanor, etc. In short, this myth casts indigenous people as essentially animals (or, as Rudyard Kipling put it, “half devil and half child”); part of the landscape like bears and wolves (it’s probably not a coincidence that this myth was created during the height of the Romanticism art period).  

One does not have to look hard to find examples of La Crosse residents saying they imagine Hiawatha as a ‘guardian’ keeping watch over the point where three rivers meet (as well as the never properly cited of the ‘Indian legend’ of there never being a tornado in such a place). Never, as Dan Green puts it, are they depicted wearing blue jeans.

America through the middle of the 20th century was packed with media spreading this mythology of Native Americans. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows around the turn of the century, for example, cemented the image of the archetypical “Indian” to the American public, which was subsequently repeated in all forms of media. 

A white person might be able to say the words “Winnebago” or “Cherokee” or “Iroquois” but not name a single difference in their cultures.

This is the context in which the “big Indian statue” was commissioned, designed, named, and incorporated into La Crosse’s culture.  The statue therefore represents two erasures- first the physical erasure of Ho-Chunk and other Native American presence on the land, and second the erasure of their authentic identity and history.

History and Meaning

It could have been done differently.  The 2011 Wisconsin Historical Society book “People of the Big Voice” reprints over 300 photographs of Ho-Chunk people living in and around Black River Falls between 1879 and 1942, predominately portrait photos of Ho-Chunk families; as can be expected for the auspicious event of having a picture taken in the late 1800s, they are likely dressed in the nicest clothing and accessories that they could afford, making these images an excellent resource for studying what Ho-Chunk in that era considered high fashion within their own culture.  

These images, and many others, had been held by the Wisconsin Historical Society for several decades as of the late 1950s, when Mr. Zimmerhakl was supposedly researching Native American dress. But there is no mention in any documentation that he ever consulted them. Nor was there any need to, because his purpose was not to produce anything historically or culturally authentic, but rather to produce an image which would be immediately recognizable, and entertaining, to white tourists.

This is, unfortunately, the most likely cause of La Crosse residents’ fixation on the statue.  It’s certainly not, despite frequent exhortations, that the statue is historic. It’s not even 60 years old and it’s not historically accurate to anyone or anything that has ever existed or happened.  Many far more historically significant buildings and places are routinely destroyed with hardly a whisper of complaint. There are thousands of houses which are older and far more culturally and architecturally significant than this statue.  

However, statues play a unique role in culture. The purpose of a statue is not to tell history, but to tell a myth. The myth that this statue tells is the stereotype of ‘the Indian’.  Following the theory that whiteness is created and defined predominantly as distinction from and opposition to black and brown, perhaps our local white population so strongly needs this statue to exist in order to reinforce their white identity.  This is the essence of white nationalism.  Sometimes it has to be pulled out root and stem.

This process might be painful (after all, to those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression), but we can be confident that these residents will get over it.  We don’t need to look very far for proof.  Who today really cares, despite the Sturm und Drang during their transitions, that the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and Central High School mascots used to be the Indians and the Red Raiders (2), respectively? 

There’s an even more telling example buried deep in La Crosse’s history: the Light Towers. On February 26, 1928, the Tribune printed an article lamenting the imminent removal, due to their obsolescence, of four towers that were located at various points across the city to provide nighttime lighting. However, the old towers were quite tall (75 to 100 feet) and visible from a long distance, prompting the author to remark:  

“All cities have certain distinctive marks of identification. To many a traveler making his first visit to La Crosse, the four lighted towers, seen from afar at dusk or shortly after, presented an unforgettable picture – one that left memories always to be associated with the city.  For many miles, one could see those lights glowing cheerily, giving promise of the hospitality that awaited one inside the city’s gates. And to the hometown folks returning from a trip, the lights were truly, as the poet wrote, ‘the lights of home.’  There was something, however unexplainable, in the first glimpse of those lights that made one’s heart beat faster and urged them onward in haste and dispelled, momentarily at least, all unpleasant thoughts of the hard journey that lay behind.”

Detail of a Light Tower from the drawing “La Crosse, Wis., County Seat of La Crosse County”, H. Wellge, 1887

Will anyone miss this statue even a fraction as much?  But the Light Towers are today almost completely forgotten, save for some odd marks in a few old photographs and maps and a newspaper article or two in an archival drawer.  This should also provide reassurance that, so long as historians and archives exist, the removal of some statues will not cause the permanent loss of memory of Hiawatha or the Civil War.

At the same time that the Chamber, tourism committee, and Mr. Zimmerhakl were building their statue, the official United States Government policy towards actual Native Americans was termination of indigenous culture, boarding schools, and surreptitious mass sterilization.  But in 1969, native people from across the country occupied Alcatraz; in 1973, Lakota and American Indian Movement members battled the FBI and National Guard at Wounded Knee; in 1978, hundreds of Native Americans went on The Longest Walk from San Francisco to Washington DC.  White Americans were shocked not only to see living Native Americans on TV standing up and fighting back, but doing so while wearing blue jeans.

The paper “The Fight to take Down ‘The Big Indian:’ Public History Activating Social Change, A Case Study” was used as a narrative and source resource for this article.

“Press Release from City-County-Tourist Publicity Committee” and “Re: Site for Indian Statue” from La Crosse, Wisconsin, City Park and Recreation Department Records, La Crosse Series 013, La Crosse Public Library Archives, La Crosse, WI; all other uncited archival documents courtesy of Murphy Library Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Footnotes:

(1) Letter: Wm. Kruger, Director of Parks to Mayor and Common Council, 11 Sept 1958, as found in Charles Haas article “The Story of the Statue in the Park” March 2018 La Crosse Historical Society magazine “Past, Present, & Future.”

(2) Central’s sports teams are still the Red Raiders, but without Indian imagery; this turned out to be enough to break the identification with the stereotypes.

Help The La Crosse Independent grow by becoming patron for $5.75 a month here.