April 24, 2011

Generic statue represents ghostly Kickapoo

LeRoy statue ode to Native American spirit

By Bill KempIn the center of LeRoy’s Kiwanis Park stands a nearly 100-year-old statue honoring a Kickapoo chief called Wausaneta. Although few know it today, this statue embodies LeRoy’s longtime ties to spiritualism, the belief that the dead have the means and inclination to communicate with the living.

The idea for such a statue came from local resident and ardent spiritualist Simeon H. West, and he foot the bill to purchase, ship and install the pre-cast metal Native American and its elaborate pedestal. West claimed that on more than one occasion he communed with a deceased Kickapoo named Wausaneta, and he erected this statue as a tribute to the chief and his people.
Adding a twist to this story, the statue was mass-produced and goes under many names:Although the story of West and Wausaneta is one of a kind, the statue itself is not. The sculpture and pedestal (which includes two drinking fountains) were cast from an existing mold at the J.L. Mott Iron Works of Trenton, N.J. It appears that the origin of this statue dates to about 1860, when a woodcarver created a generic Native American chief for William Demuth, who sold cigar store Indians. In fact, the statue is listed as “No. 53 Indian Chief” in an 1872 Demuth catalog. A short time later, Mott purchased this design from Demuth.

Today, one can find “No. 53 Indian Chief” scattered across the nation and beyond, including Cincinnati, Ohio (where it’s named for Native American leader Tecumseh, a Shawnee); Calhoun, Ga. (this one carries the name Sequoyah, a famous Cherokee); Ishpeming, Mich. (“Old Ish,” an Ojibwe); Schenectady, N.Y. (a Mohawk called “Lawrence”); and even Cusco, Peru.
Comment:  It's hard to say which aspect of this story is more bizarre. That someone raised a statue of an imaginary Indian he supposedly saw in a seance. Or that people would raise a generic statue and name it after Indians from different tribes.

Obviously, the Kickapoo, Shawnee, Cherokee, Ojibwe, and Mohawk tribes aren't the same thing. That people would assume a generic statue is good enough shows our stereotyping thinking toward Indians. It proves that we know little or nothing about the huge diversity of tribes across the land.

At least the statue isn't of a Plains chief. That really would be insulting.

The Indian appears to be wearing buckskins and a cloak over his bare chest. He looks more like a traveler than a warrior or chief. As art, therefore, "No. 53 Indian Chief" fails because it's blandly generic, not because it's terribly stereotypical.

For more on the subject, see Generic Oh Great Spirit Statue and Is The American Worth It?

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