La Crosse parks officials begin removing Hiawatha statue, crews run into problems Monday

Spectators watched construction crews attempt to remove 59-year-old Hiawatha statue from La Crosse's Riverside Park
Hiawatha Removal

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – A statue that has stood in La Crosse’s Riverside Park for nearly 60 years is coming down. Crews planned to have the Hiawatha statue removed Monday, but ran into anticipated problems taking it down.

Sunday, several people slipped into Riverside Park for a final photo next to the structure. As darkness settled in, Monday’s sunrise greeted Hiawatha with jackhammers and a crane.

“It’s sad to see it go,” said Tara Walters, a resident of French Island in La Crosse.

This well-known piece of artwork has long carried a simmering controversy that grew louder in recent years. Some see it as a welcome symbol of La Crosse.

“It was something we would always come down and see,” Walters said. “It was apart of Riverside.”

Removing Hiawatha

Monday, crews and La Crosse parks officials begin removing the Hiawatha early in the morning in La Crosse’s Riverside Park.

Others see it as a misrepresentation of their Native American heritage. Tracy Littlejohn made that clear July 16 when the La Crosse Parks Board voted to remove the statue from the park.

“It is not an honor to us,” Littlejohn said during the July 16 virtual meeting. “It does not teach anything. People don’t learn about the Ho-Chunk people because they see a statue. It was a tourist attraction.”

How this statue is perceived all depends on a person’s own experience.

“But I’m not in their shoes and I don’t understand,” Walters said.

Walters daughter Marlee said she can see the other side.

“I can see how it can kind of be offensive to other people,” Marlee said.

Gary Kreutz sees the statue through his own lens. He remembers when Anthony Zimmerhakl created the statue.

“He built it in his garage. He was the art teacher at Long Fellow and then he came over to Central,” Kreutz said. “I never had him as a teacher, but I knew him.”

For him, this is a tough goodbye. He feels his voice was not heard.

“Yep it’s a shame,” he said. “I thought we lived in America where democracy rules.”

He even created a petition to keep the statue in the park.

“Lot of people wanted to sign it that didn’t even live here,” Kreutz said.

The city made the effort to let the Hiawatha statue down lightly amid this storm of controversy. Parks director Jay Odegaard said his opinion on the matter is irrelevant.

Jay Odegaard

La Crosse parks and rec. director Jay Odegaard takes questions from local journalists as crews work to remove the Hiawatha Statue from Riverside Park.

“The city isn’t in the business of trying to determine what art is good or bad,” Odegaard said.

He said his job is to get it out of the park safely.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that it survives with little to no damage,” Odegaard said.

Hiawatha is not leaving quietly. Crews faced some equipment problems to fix.

“Seven hours later we’ve come to the conclusion that we are gonna need to reevaluate the strength of the crane we brought in,” Odegaard said. “We also have some cutting torch issues.”

A source told News 8 Now the crane was “nowhere near” strong enough to lift the statue. That same source also said safety was a major concern.

Fifty-nine years later, Hiawatha will look out at the Mississippi River for at least another day.

“We’re gonna come back tomorrow (Tuesday) with a little bit better game plan,” Odegaard said.

The statue will be taken by the original artists’ family. They plan to put the statue back-up, somewhere else in the future.

Odegaard said there is no plan to replace the statue right now especially with the pandemic’s effect on the city’s budget. Odegaard also said the last thing the city should do is rush to find a new piece of artwork to replace the statue.