Thursday, 18 August 2022
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Rusty Cunningham: ‘Hiawatha’ statue is missing an important lesson

I’m so moved by all the heartfelt passion about the “Hiawatha” statue that it’s clear I’m missing something.


Rusty Cunningham mug

I wanted to know more about the inspiration for the mighty statue, the history of the native people at the sacred place where three rivers meet.

Something so incredibly historic simply must have information explaining for tourists the world over and to residents of our region what inspired the majestic statue.

So, I headed to the foot of the statue on a foggy morning last week with the American Queen riverboat docked nearby to learn what I was missing.

Here’s what I found.

In the base of the statue is a metal plaque that reads:

by La Crosse artist


assisted by his sons


That’s it.

Not a damned word about the dude towering over the plaque, the park and the confluence of three rivers.

But the Native Americans who settled our prairie? The people who used to play a game here that came to be known as lacrosse?

Nope, not a word.

Not near the statue.

Not near the river.

Not near the nearby tourism bureau.

Not a thing. Not a word.


Old 'Hiawatha' sign

This 1962 photo shows the sign that was placed next to the “Hiawatha” statue in Riverside Park. It’s not known when the sign was removed.

Thanks to the keepers of our local history, we know there used to be a sign next to the statue with the words:

“This Indian is symbolic of all of the Indians of the area and is dedicated particularly to the braves of the Winnebagoes. Among the most famous were chief Decorah and his son, Chief Winneshiek.”

But the sign is long gone.

Maybe it’s just as well. We couldn’t have agreed on the wording anyway.

Of course, there were plenty of groups and people who opposed naming it Hiawatha from the start because Hiawatha doesn’t represent local native peoples.

Some people pushed to name it for Decorah, but that obviously didn’t fly.

For his part, the artist said he was trying to represent all native peoples, not just those who lived here.

So, we couldn’t agree on what to name it from the start.

And we’ve been fighting for years about whether it’s respectful and whether it should be located in Riverside Park.

And with all that fighting, we’ve forgotten something — something that never comes up unless and until there’s a threat about getting rid of the statue.

Our community has forgotten to tell the story of our Native American heritage on the prairie where three rivers meet.

La Crosse started as a trading post in Indian territory. The trail and the big river led to the prairie, a favorite gathering place for the Native Americans. The French named it Prairie La Crosse for the game they saw being played here by the Native Americans.

But there’s nothing near the statue or in the park to say that.

Not a plaque. Not a word.

It’s a teaching moment that’s been missed since 1962. (Thank goodness there’s a state-sponsored marker in La Crosse’s Red Cloud Park that presents our heritage to visitors.)

You would think we could stop fighting long enough to develop a plaque or a story board that tells an important story in our history, regardless of what happens to the statue.

Evidently, the fight is more important and more fun than telling that important story.

Other than the story of the sinking of the War Eagle, we’ve missed the boat.

'Hiawatha' could find new home outside Riverside Park


The Bark Box

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