Local artist who designed ‘Lacrosse Players’ sculpture explains why Hiawatha statue is controversial

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – La Crosse’s history is filled with Native American stories.

Throughout the city, people can see many statues and sculptures dedicated to their heritage.

In the heart of the city at the intersection of Main and 2nd streets is a work of art representing what La Crosse stands for.

“I looked at the history of the town and decided upon ‘The Lacrosse Players,'” artist Elmer Petersen said, who designed the sculpture back in 1981. “I thought that best represented the city.”

History says Native Americans were the first people who lived in La Crosse.

The four-decade old sculpture downtown shows indigenous people playing the game this city is named after.

“At the time, we thought of them as Winnebago (Tribe of Nebraska),” Petersen said.

The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska is one of two tribes in the country that make up all of the Ho-Chunk Native Americans, the other being Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. There is a portion of Ho-Chunk people in La Crosse.

Hiawatha comes from a different tribe.

“There’s no name like that around here,” Petersen said.

Hiawatha was a leader of the Onondaga Tribe in the New York area five centuries ago.

“It is not honored to us,” Tracy Littlejohn of the Ho-Chunk Nation said during the park board meeting July 16.

The statue in Riverside Park named after Hiawatha has been a subject of controversy for decades in the city.

“People don’t learn about the Ho-Chunk people because they see a statue,” Littlejohn said.

Littlejohn says the statue does not accurately reflect the tribe.

“It was a tourist attraction not meant to teach anything,” Littlejohn said.

Petersen says the Hiawatha statue should come down, unless Ho-Chunk Nation changes what it looks like.

“Maybe the Ho-Chunk ought to take and decide what to do by deciding if they want to make it into the right colors,” Petersen said.

But he’ll tell you he’s just happy how far his work of art has come along.

“It’s probably as good of a piece I’ve ever made,” Petersen said. “Free of controversy.”

When driving along Highway 53 going into the city, there is a very similar looking statue to the one Petersen made nearly 40 years ago that says “La Crosse Welcomes You.”

The Hiawatha statue was designed by local artist Anthony Zimmerhakl. It was put into Riverside Park in 1962. City leaders say it will cost up to $15,000 to take it down.