La Crosse Parks Board votes to remove Hiawatha statue from Riverside Park

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)- The La Crosse Board of Park Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday night to remove the Hiawatha statue in Riverside Park.

The statue has been a subject of debate for decades in La Crosse as some people, including members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, do not believe the statue represents Indigenous communities.

Others argue it is part of the history of the city and should not be taken down.

Mayor Tim Kabat sent a letter to the Board of Park Commissioners earlier this week to have the statue removed from the park.

“It is time. Communities across our nation are facing the symbols from their pasts and making decisions about how to heal and move forward,” Kabat said in his letter.

Ho-Chunk tribe members said Hiawatha was part of the Onondaga Nation, and he never traveled to La Crosse.

In addition, it does not appropriately reflect the authentic clothing of Onondaga.

Cooninaziwi Tracy Littlejohn of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Bear Clan, spoke during the meeting, saying the statue is a mash-up of many different tribes and is insulting to Native Americans.

“We are separate as Ho-Chunk or Anishinaabe, or Menominee or Lac Courte,” she said.

Littlejohn works with children and is a researcher.

She’s seen first hand how kids are impacted by this kind of misrepresentation.

“Imagery like this can cause severe self-esteem problems and identity issues. They’ve already got those in the first place, because we live in a city, because many of us are mixed, and some of us are not as connected to our traditional ways. This statue continues to cause those issues… No longer is it okay for society to tell me how I feel. No longer is it okay to tell my children how they’re supposed to feel. It is not an honor to us. It does not teach anything. People do not learn about the Ho-Chunk people because they see a statue. It’s a tourist attraction, not meant to teach anything.”

One board member did make a motion to delay the decision for 30 days because of how quickly it was brought to them and to get more community input, but the motion failed.

Other members say the community has been pushing for the removal for years, it can’t be put off any longer – the time is now.

“We can wait another 30 days if we want, but it would be, in my opinion, just prolonging this, and it’s been way, way past the time that we should get this out of here,” said board member Roger Christians. “The phone calls and personal emails I got favor this overwhelmingly.”

The city had been working with the family of the statue’s artist, Anthony Zimmerhakl, to possibly find a new place for it.

“I understand there will be upset residents but deep down each of us knows that it is time to retire the Hiawatha and return it to the Zimmerhakl family per their request. Let’s come together in solidarity to move all of La Crosse forward in a positive way,” said Kabat.

La Crosse Parks and Rec Director Jay Odegaard said the price tag to remove the statue from the park is between $13,000-15,000, but added his department does have money in the budget for the project.

Odegaard also said earlier this week, the city would have to store the statue when it is removed for about a year.

Steve Kiedrowski, a friend of the Zimmerhakl family and a local historian, said removing the statue will be a difficult task.

“The statue is very heavy, it has two steel I-beams that run all the way through it. And it has a lot of large cracks in it right now. So I’m afraid if they try to move it, I think it’s just going to pulverize and fall apart. And then you’ve got artwork that’s been destroyed.”

Kiedrowski said the family would love to keep the statue in La Crosse but sees why others would like to see it removed.

“The family is sympathetic to some of the feelings of the Native Americans.”

City staff has been directed to start the process of taking the statue down.