Friday, June 01, 2012


we must continue throughout our lives to do what we conceive to be good. - sauk warrior blackhawk (1767-1838) 
     two years ago i wrote the story of the sauk warrior blackhawk’s 1830's victory tour in the face of his captor andrew jackson and the wonderful record in paintings and drawings of the man which it produced. blackhawk for christmas.    but, of course, even these images were made through the eyes of nonindian artists and were tolerable because they were theoretically realistic.  later images tended to be reflective of prejudice and less realistic.  so today i write about the rest of the images of blackhawk.  a wisconsin blogger summed it up well in his reflecting on blackhawk’s legacy:
Rock River was a beautiful country; I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. I fought for it. -- Black Hawk 
I came across this scene yesterday while looking for something else. It's just off the Rock River, near the intersection of Highways 26 and 106. The Rock River is a 285-mile tributary of the Mississippi River that flows through southwest Wisconsin into Illinois on its way to the Mississippi, draining the Yahara River that connects Madison's lakes along the way. It runs through some of the richest agricultural land in the world, and as the quote reminds us, European settlers were not the first people to farm here or to fall in love with the beauty of the land. I've written earlier about the tragic and misnamed Black Hawk War -- misnamed because it was less a war than a flight and a pursuit ending in a massacre -- that settled these competing claims once and for all 175 years ago this year. ... History is often written with a pen dipped in bitter irony, and there's no better example than the fact that today the legacy of Black Hawk lives on in place names and the names of organizations and country clubs throughout his people's former territory.
     i coined the phrase ‘indian kitsch’ while observing the works of euchee artist richard ray whitman, who incorporates pictorial versions of this phenomenon which surrounds us in oklahoma. but, of course, ‘kitsch’ and ‘ironic’ are words by which we avoid repeating the simple truth.  Using indian names and images is one more proof that the non-Indian world remains blind to the disrespect that has always characterized both the enemies and ‘friends’ of indian people. 
     the blogger began his essay with a tattered sign restricting use of a fishing hole to members of a vfw who comprised the blackhawing boating club. I found many more examples which come from the states that blackhawk lifed and/or fought in. rock island, illinois is a bit of an epicenter of the theoretically appreciative appropriation of blackhawk’s name and image. the sauk ‘capital’ suaukenak’ was near here for 100 years before the events that culminated in the ‘blackhawk war’. blackhawk in his autobiography described the lands and a watchtower which was used for observation up and down the rock river. The white locals later incorporated this into an inn and an amusement park using blackhawk’s name and the tower. more positively the black hawk state historic site is here along with a museum both of which actively solicit participation from descendants of the sac and fox who lived here. Blackhawk park
     but it also produced a two sided metal statue/sign with an image of blackhawk advertising for the ‘watchtower’ shopping center. A Roadside American tip
describing it offers cute insights and a terrible tag line: 
This metal statue of chief black hawk has never been painted. It is the original porcelain coating that was on the statue since installation. Not bad for a 50 year old finish. what would blackhawk -- chief of the sauks -- say, seeing his lands returned to full retail vigor? 
rock island was also the home of a company that produced ‘blackhawk pale dry ginger ale’ - and grabbed off a blackhawk image. three years ago a local couple carved a tree destroyed into ‘a likeness’ of blackhawk. The local newspaper offered a somewhat bizarre photo of the carving in front of a flag. 
     and, of course, chicago is the home of the most public totally unrealistic image of blackhawk, the emblem of the chicago blackhawks. historically the blackhawks name was supposed to have come from a world war 1 army division but ‘doughboys’ never were added to their jerseys.  
     wisconsin’s kitsch-tributions are a little more uncertain; I found two. Local lore in prairie du chien, wisconsin has a cottonwood tree said to be the black hawk tree, or black hawk's tree, where blackhawk allegedly hid. The story was debunked a century ago and fell later in a windstorm, but the spot is still marked and a piece of wood allegedly from it is housed in a local museum. I also found two images of postcard showing an indian man named whirling thunder, a guide on a boat called the blackhawk.  whirling thunder was the son of blackhawk and was often depicted in paintings of him. so this is a double insult and demeaning to the indian man in the picture. Iowa was the final home of blackhawk. He chose to be buried there only to have his body stolen from its grave by a local doctor intent on displaying his skull to the world. later the state treated him somewhat better. the statue in his honor is the best of the bunch as you’ll see later. But even there someone couldn’t resist putting a totally inaccurate depiction of him on a sign in the park named after him. finally I found some other examples of misuse and flawed portrayal of blackhawk’s image of uncertain origin: tobacco, chewing gum and a book allegedly about him. 

     iowa houses a beautiful 11 foot statute of blackhawk that I think he would have approved of.  in 1934 harry stinson created an accurate and beautiful 11 foot statue of blackhawk which overlooks a lake also named after him. the artist worked with iowa’s most well known artist grant wood, perhaps as part of a wpa art program, the statue was completely restored in 1999.  
     illinois on the other hand is  the home of the largest, probably best known and most deliberately inaccurate sculpture of blackhawk - insulting kitsch on a massive scale. in 1911, one lorado taft determined to build a massive sculture honoring indians on land he used on land housing the eagle's nest art colony, the turn of the century equivalent of an intellectual artist colony full of early day new-agers like those who beset indian people these days. the result was a concrete statue 125 feet above the rock river the rock river. 
"at the dedication of the statue on July 1, 1911, taft said that in the evenings he and members of the eagle's nest art colony walked along the bluff and would often stop at the statue's location to enjoy the view from the bluff. contemplation became habitual, arms folded, restful and reverent. black hawk came from that contemplative mood and attitude. the 48-foot (15 m) tall monolith, towering over the river, suggests an unconquered spirit through its composition blending fox, sac, sioux and mohawk cultures. taft said the statue was inspired by the Sac leader black hawk, although it is not a likeness of the chief.” 
and of course it was not a likeness of blackhawk or other tribes but it soon became officially the blackhawk statue anyway. Its size and placement continue to photograph well and probably draw numerous tourists. But it is in the end an insulting and paternalistic image not of blackhawk but of the noble but defeated savage like various works in oklahoma. I found two other non-massive and apparently respectful and accurate blackhawk sculptures the first sculpture in a set of sculptures in saint feriole island park in prairie du chien, wisconsin honored blackhawk [the only indian in the group]. blackhawk state park in illinois also includes a sculpture honoring blackhawk.

     this current effort began saturday morning when i somehow happened in a website devoted to railroad pictures and happened on an image entitled “Indian guy on hotel in rock island”. it didn’t take me too long to figure out i had stumbled on a blackhawk treasure like i had never known. a bettendorf, iowa, blogger told me much more in a wonderful piece entitled celebrating independence day
overlooking the mississippi river from the back of an office building in downtown rock Island looms a mural of black hawk, the native american leader of the sauk nation. It was on the 4th of july i noticed the painting while driving along illinois' highway 92, thinking about the declaration of independence and its meaning. my eyes were drawn to the six-story painting that looks toward the mississippi river, or the great river as it was known among the native peoples of the mississippi river basin. 
      in fact the building mural was the product of a well-known urban artist, richard haas who specializes in creating mural sculptures that change the look of a building by some alterations and the tricks of a trompe l'oeil artist. here he altered the shape of the roof and filled in four windows to create the sixty-foot high vision of blackhawk.  richard haas black hawk memorial
     haas has worked on other historical subjects including lewis and clark in oregon and the end of the chisolm trail in fort worth. perhaps more interestingly, he had a prior moment with blackhawk which basically came out oddly. In 1985 the city of madison, wisconsin, commissioned haas to design a mural which included portraits of wisconsin historic figures as medallions along with other views in ‘the artist’s illusionist style’. the project was surrounded by political and other controvery.“ it is now largely hidden by another controversial project, the monona terrace. See the olin terrace mural.  And I have not been able to find an image of his depiction of blackhawk. instead I only offer two images related to the project which I can’t really identify. i have written to the artist who was kind enough to answer that he is touring in russia and will see if he can help later in the month. 

     so the yin and yang of the life of a special man goes on.  the sac and fox can look back with pride on his real legacy.  the bettendorf blogger puts it well: 
black hawk, born before america's independence, witnessed this nation's birth and expansive growth across the north american continent. he fought against her on the side of the british in the war of 1812 in the hope of staving off the mass migration of europeans into native american land. ... in this scheme of things, black hawk stands as a witness to the incongruity of america’s ideals as avowed in the declaration of independence and the reality of her history.  on the banks of the great river, this native american warrior and freedom fighter looms as a conscience to remind us of our higher calling.


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