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Mayor calls for removal of controversial Hiawatha statue from Riverside Park in La Crosse
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Mayor calls for removal of controversial Hiawatha statue from Riverside Park in La Crosse

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La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat Monday asked the city’s Board of Park Commissioners to remove the Hiawatha Statue from Riverside Park, after decades of debating the future of the controversial artwork.

“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 wrote in a letter to the board.

The roughly 60-year-old statue has received pushback from community members, including individual members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, for depicting exaggerated racial stereotypes of Indigenous communities.

But others have argued that the artwork should remain intact as a piece of La Crosse’s history, a towering 25-foot figure that has stood on the north side of Riverside Park since 1961.

“It’s interesting to read some of the meeting minutes and some of the discussions from various city officials back in the early 1960s when this was first proposed as a tourist attraction for the La Crosse area,” Kabat said of the city’s research into the statue’s history.

“That leads me to believe that there was controversy even back then,” Kabat said, saying he could “read between the lines” of the records, noting that the city council never approved the artwork, with the parks board having the final say.

The mayor asks the board to remove the statue and temporarily store it until the family of the statue’s artist, Anthony Zimmerhakl, finds a new home for it.

Family members have stated they would compromise with relocating it to private property instead of destroying it.

The removal of the statue and storage for up to one year will cost the city $14,000, according to Jay Odegaard, the director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department.

Zimmerhakl was an art teacher in La Crosse when he constructed the statue out of cement and wire, and community members and city officials have said he used his position as a teacher to educate people about Indigenous people.

Zimmerhakl’s family said they had no knowledge of Kabat’s call ahead of Monday, and said finding a new home for the artwork has been challenging.

“We’ve tried to find a location, but what we seem to run into,” said Tim Slonka, son-in-law to Zimmerhakl, “is the upkeep of the statue and the insurance that would be associated with it.”

“As a whole, the family has never been in favor of removing it from the park,” Slonka continued. “However, in these times we’re living in now, it’s probably time.”

“Although if my father-in-law were still alive he’d have a much stronger opinion,” Slonka added.

Though the Ho-Chunk Nation has remained neutral on the issue, individual members have spoken out about its damage to the community, including its influence on young Indigenous children and the impact on mental health in Indigenous communities.

This call to action from Mayor Kabat comes when statues and other controversial symbols have come toppling down in recent weeks in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after a Black man was killed in Minneapolis by police.

“With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s hard not to pay attention to our place, La Crosse’s place, in this big world,” Kabat said. “The timing is right.”

In Madison, the Forward statue and another of a Union Civil War colonel outside of the Capitol were torn down last month by protesters, who threw one of them into the lake, saying the monuments did not accurately represent the fabric of the city.

And in Columbus, Wisconsin, the city council voted to remove a statue of its namesake, Christopher Columbus, whose history of slavery and genocide have often been overshadowed by his explorations.

Nationally, Kabat’s announcement is especially timely. On Monday, the Washington football team announcing it would retire its longtime name and logo.

“I understand there will be upset residents, but deep down each of us must know that it is time to retire the Hiawatha,” Kabat wrote. “Let’s come together in solidarity to move all of La Crosse forward in a positive way.”

Kabat said that once the statue is removed, the city would look to replace it with a more inclusive marker to celebrate the spot where the La Crosse, Black and Mississippi rivers meet.

“This, I think, is a good opportunity for us to move forward. And yes, it’s going to cause some pain,” he said. “We can do something that can be a true celebration so everyone can feel proud about it.”

The Board of Park Commissioners will meet for its regular monthly meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, though a final agenda has not been released yet.


“With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s hard not to pay attention to our place, La Crosse’s place, in this big world. The timing is right.” Mayor Tim Kabat

"With everything that's going on in the world, it's hard not to pay attention to our place, La Crosse's place, in this big world. The timing is right."

Mayor Tim Kabat

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