Hiawatha Statue in Riverside Park may be removed soon

City leaders met with members of the Ho-Chunk Nation and other stakeholders today to talk about the future of the Hiawatha Statue. Tim Slonka was at the meeting. Slonka is the son-in-law of Anthony Zimmerhakl, the artist who created the statue.

“We’d like it to stay where it is, but that’s obviously not going to happen. He loved doing that statue. The whole family pitched in,” Slonka said.

Slonka said his father-in-law was one of the hardest-working people he ever met.

“A man put his heart and soul into this. (It took) over four years to construct this statue and it has stood the test of time,” Slonka said.

To this day, he views the statue as a piece of family pride.

“Classmates, friends still ask, people that have moved away and that we hear from ask: Is your father-in-law’s statue still up? And I’m proud to say it is,” Slonka said.

But the statue had a different impact on several Ho-Chunk Nation members including Tracy Littlejohn.

“He just doesn’t represent tribal people,” Littlejohn said.

Littlejohn would like to see the statue moved because it doesn’t reflect what the Native Americans who lived in La Crosse actually looked like.

“It continues to cement that Hollywood Indian the ones that everybody saw in the old ‘cowboys and indians’ movies,” Littlejohn said.

She said that many Native American children struggle with depression and suicide, and she thinks that’s partly due to them not knowing who they are or where they came from.

“In order to make them feel good and to make the other students also aware, it’s extremely important that we have the accurate information,” Littlejohn said.

She knows a lot of people will be upset with the statue moving, but thinks it’s worth it to have accurate portrayals of the Ho-Chunk people.

“Our history is important as well and, to me, that history, that tradition is a lot stronger than an inanimate object,” Littlejohn said.

Slonka said his family doesn’t want to fight to keep the statue in the park.

“Council members are going to change. Mayors are going to change. Ideas are going to change. We might win this time around but next time around, we may lose,” Slonka said.

In order to make sure the statue never gets destroyed the family wants to move it to private property.

“Businesses in the area, business leaders in the area have approached the family offering a spot for the statue,” Slonka said.

They don’t know where the statue will end up, but it might be placed in Caledonia, Minnesota.

“The Zimmerhakl family is from Caledonia so, in essence, it’d be returning home, if you will,” Slonka said.

The mayor estimates that removing the statue and putting it up in another location will cost about $50,000.

City officials don’t know yet if that money would come from public funds or private donations.

But before any of that happens, the statue’s removal has to be approved by the park board, and officials said that meeting is likely still a few months away.

It was also proposed today that, if the statue is removed, a memorial should be put in its place, commemorating both the artist and the Ho-Chunk Nation.