My wife, I and two friends traveled to Osceola, Wisconsin last weekend to take 90-minute train ride to enjoy the fall colors.
The eye-opener for me was the “Chief Osceola” statue in the center of the town of about 2,500 that still seems stuck in the 1950s.
The statue has the stereotypical Plains Indian look, a half-naked man with an eagle-feather headdress, nothing like what Osceola actually looked like. It’s more town mascot than honoring the town’s namesake.
I’ll admit that there are many more pressing issues for indigenous peoples than one more offensive statue. There’s the loss of traditional indigenous languages, environmental threats to wild rice, homelessness, crude oil pipelines and more.
I still feel compelled to write about the statue and how it’s interpreted.
Born in Alabama, Osceola was Creek on his mother’s side. Following the Creek Wars, he moved to Florida and became part of the Seminole nation.
Counties in Florida, Iowa and Michigan adopted Osceola as a namesake, as well as many other communities.
The naming of Osceola, Wisconsin has an extra twist. The interpretive sign behind Chief Osceola tells the following story.
William Kent “settled” in present-day Osceola in 1844. Kent wanted lumber to build ship masts. He put down roots at a spot near a waterfall that could power a lumber mill.
The town’s first name was Leroy, “in honor of Leroy Hubbard, the first white man to die here,” the sign said. The town’s name later “changed to Osceola Mills and finally around 1900 to Osceola after an Indian Chief and the first boat built in the St. Croix Valley.”
So the town was named after a boat that was named after Osceola, “an Indian Chief.”
The St. Croix River Scenic Byway wayfinding map for local trails uses the Chief Osceola statue as the major landmark. There seems to be no awareness that this is both historically inaccurate and offensive.
Right next door to the statue is Sodie’s Cigars. Inside the store is a small cigar store Indian.
Such statues started appearing in colonial times, a form of advertising for a generally illiterate public. Just as barbers used red-and-white polls to advertise their services, tobacco stores used wooden Indians. Indians introduced Europeans to tobacco.
Many people find such statues offensive for their racial stereotyping; others will pay thousands of dollars for them.
Osceola’s interpretive signs make no mention of the real Chief Osceola or his story.
Here’s a piece of that history from Wikipedia:
Following the Second Seminole War, Osceola and 81 of his followers were captured by order of General Thomas Jesup, under a white flag of truce.
Osceola’s capture by deceit caused a national uproar. General Jesup’s treacherous act and the administration were condemned by many congressional leaders and vilified by international press. Jesup suffered a loss of reputation that lasted for the rest of his life; his betrayal of the truce flag has been described as “one of the most disgraceful acts in American military history.”
Osceola died three months after his capture.
For more background, the town of Osceola is located on lands originally inhabited by the Dakota, who were later displaced by the Ojibwe (or Anishinaabe). The Ojibwe ceded large tracts of land to the U.S. government in 1837; that treaty included lands that would soon become the town of Osceola. The Ojibwe retain rights under the treaty to continue to use the ceded land for hunting, fishing and other purposes.
There are 11 federally recognized Native nations in Wisconsin.