Historic Hiawatha statue causes controversy

A historic statue in La Crosse is causing controversy again and area representatives are discussing the future of its place at Riverside Park. During a City Arts Board meeting Friday, members continued a discussion from earlier this week about the significance of the Hiawatha statue in the community.

During a quarterly joint listening session held Wednesday night, many in attendance wanted to talk about the role of the Hiawatha statue.

“There were lots of Ho-Chunk people that were there that talked about the experience of being Ho-Chunk and living with that statue in our community,” said Doug Weidenbach, chair member on the La Crosse Arts Board.

Weidenbach was at the meeting and says that while some Native American people at the meeting were supportive of the art, others were not for a variety of reasons.

“One of the biggest ones being, I think, is that it’s just a caricature of their culture,” Weidenbach said.

During the board meeting held at city hall today, Vicki Markussen said that was not how it’s meant to be taken.

“Its intent was to honor the Native Americans. Back then, the Native Americans were saying that there wasn’t anything to recognize their heritage,” Markussen said.

Markussen says through her own research of newspaper articles, when the art was installed, the biggest issue was the name.

“Most people were offended by Hiawatha because he does not have any local heritage,” Markussen said.

As the executive director of the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce, she hopes to be included in these conversations as the issue progresses.

“As the originators of the statue and the idea behind it and having done the research, it would be nice to have us meet with the Ho-Chunk so that we can have positive conversation of how to move forward,” Markussen said.

Board members will have some time to think before continuing this conversation at its meeting in January. They could then make a recommendation to the parks department, which has control over the fate of the statue.