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A Dilemma in La Crosse
By Art Hughes
December 4, 2000
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A group of LaCrosse, Wisconsin residents and city officials are deciding what to do with a popular city landmark that's fallen into disrepair. It will cost tens of thousands of dollars to shore up the concrete statue "Hiawatha," but some critics say the statue represents an outdated and offensive view of Native Americans and the city should discard it.

A critic of the statue says its hooked nose, the clothing, the peace pipe, and the folded arms add up to a cartoon image of how one non-native person views Indian culture. See a larger image.

(MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
THE HIAWATHA STATUE has been a prominent feature in La Crosse's Riverside Park for 40 years. It's four stories tall and wears a colorful vest, buckskins and a loin cloth. His arms are folded and cradle a peace pipe. The name Hiawatha comes from the popular Longfellow poem, but most locals refer to it as The Big Indian. The statue is in dire need of repair. But when city officials discussed spending up to $50,000 to resurface and paint it, they heard from people like Matt Stewart. He's the co-chair of the Native American Student Association at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

"It is a gross amalgamation of native people and native cultures. It's a fictionalization of native people and those cultures. It's a stereotype that needs to be gone," Stewart says.

Stewart, a sophomore at the university, also works for the Wisconsin Indian Education Association to rid the state of offensive high school team mascots. He says it's difficult to convey to non-Native Americans just how damaging such images are.

"These are on our food and on alcohol and on clothing. The problem is so widespread because it is so ingrained in the American psyche," he says. "It's part of the American myth; this idea of the frontier, of the noble savage. This idea is part of the axiology of being an American."

Stewart says the statue's hook nose, the clothing, the peace pipe, and the folded arms add up to a cartoon image of how one non-native person views Indian culture.

Still, lifelong La Crosse resident Virginia Zweifel is among those who don't see what the fuss is all about. She's already seen her former high school change its Red Raiders mascot, and the university's football team switch from the Indians to the Eagles 10 years ago. She says Hiawatha is a tribute, not a slight.

"I can't see in any way that they find this statue offensive. I don't understand it at all. There's nothing offensive about the statue. It's a part of history. People nowadays are so paranoid about being discriminatory that I think they overreact the opposite way," Zweifel says.

Virginia Zweifel says Hiawatha is a tribute, not a slight.
Zweifel was once a student of the statue's creator. Anthony Zimmerhakl was a popular high school art teacher and many say Hiawatha should be restored out of respect for him.

The predominant tribe in La Crosse, the Ho-Chunk nation, hasn't helped clear the water any. They've maintained a neutral stance on the statue issue, saying it's a city matter.

La Crosse's mayor appointed a committee of nine to advise the City Council on the issue. The chair of the committee is City Council member John Satory. A self-proclaimed preservationist, Satory says the statue may well have offensive traits. But that isn't reason enough to tear it down.

"It is part of us now. It's another one of those things that's put on postcards and it's become part of La Crosse," he says.

It's also an important marker for American history, says Karel Ann Marling, an art history professor at the University of Minnesota, whose book Colossus of Roads deals with the various large roadside statues around the upper Midwest. Marling says works like the Hiawatha statue can serve as reminders of how far the country has come.

"We can't rewrite history, but we can move on from it. To rewrite history means to take that mural off the wall or to destroy that statue. To change means to not do that again in the same way, or to hold up the work as an example of what our past was like. And our past in American is not always a wholesome thing," says Marling.

In the end, a decision on the statue's future may rely more on economics than cultural sensitivity. Not only does the concrete need repair, but the elaborate design requires frequent repainting. The city at one time resolved that issue, ironically, by painting the entire statue white.

Art Hughes can be reached via e-mail at