Hiawatha

La Crosse city leaders have decided to remove the 25-foot-high, 20-ton statue of Hiawatha that has towered over Riverside Park since 1961.

LA CROSSE — The La Crosse Board of Park Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday night to remove the Hiawatha statue from Riverside Park after decades of debating its future.

The decision comes after La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat requested the board take action, pushing for the city to follow suit of other cities in addressing its roots in racism and cultural appropriation.

It comes after decades of Indigenous people and their allies calling for its removal, saying it represents exaggerated racial stereotypes, inaccurate representation of Native tribes of the area and disingenuous intentions.

"No longer is it OK for a society to tell me how I feel. No longer is it OK to tell my children how they're supposed to feel," said Tracy Littlejohn, who has advocated for the statues removal for decades.

"It is not an honor to us. It does not teach anything. People don't learn about the Ho-Chunk people because they see a statue. It was a tourist attraction not meant to teach anything," Littlejohn said.

There was still some debate from officials who wanted to refer the decision until next month, heeding concerns from the community that the statue has now become a nostalgic piece of La Crosse history, but ultimately, all board members voted to remove it.

"This statue does not represent us. It represents the Indigenous people of our region, and I think it's very important that we listen to their concerns," said council member Larry Sleznikow.

The statue will now be stored at the city's Municipal Service Center for at least one year until the artist's family finds a new home for it. It will cost the city between $13,000 and $15,000 to remove and store the sculpture.

In recent years, the family of artist Anthony Zimmerhakl, who created the sculpture, has agreed to compromise with the city to relocate the statue to private property in order to preserve the art, but locking down a new location has proven more difficult than thought.

Events in recent weeks created a sense of urgency to take the statue down now rather than wait.

"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 after sending his letter to the board on Monday.

In the last few weeks, protesters have marched and rioted through city streets after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police while being detained, and in their paths came tumbling down statues and monuments of controversial figures and images protesters said did not accurately represent the communities they towered over.

In Madison, protesters tore down two statues outside of the Capitol last month arguing they did not accurately represent the fabric of the city, and in the Wisconsin city of Columbus the city council voted to remove a statue of its namesake, Christopher Columbus, whose history of slavery and genocide have often been ignored.

City officials hope to have it removed by winter and replace it next year with something that better represents Indigenous people of the area.