First in an occasional series.
The city has started working on a $35,000 project to upgrade the Chief Oshkosh memorial in Menominee Park by installing a walkway that will allow easier access, especially for disabled people.
But officials are still struggling with the question of how to describe what visitors will see when they arrive at the memorial, which includes a marked grave that was once believed to contain the remains of Chief Oshkosh.
The Oshkosh burial site on Pratt Trail in Menominee Park (usually referred to as the Oshkosh “burial site” in city documents to acknowledge that it probably isn’t) consists of a 10-foot bronze statue of a strapping, bare-chested young man atop a 9½-foot rose granite pedestal. At its foot is a black granite slab, roped off with black metal chain, that serves as a tombstone and carries this inscription:
A man of peace,
beloved by all.
A chief of the
Menominee Tribe of Indians
whose greatest achievement
in this life was in giving
to this city the name which
will make it famous while
one stone remains upon another.
For anyone who cares about history or facts, just about everything about the memorial is wrong.
To begin with, many people who have studied the matter have come to the conclusion that Chief Oshkosh’s remains are still on the Menominee reservation near Keshena.
The city held an elaborate ceremony in 1926 to mark the transfer of the chief’s body from a family cemetery on the banks of the Wolf River to the foot of the statute overlooking Lake Winnebago, but doubts began to emerge soon thereafter about whether the Menominee would really have allowed the bones of a revered chief to be moved off the reservation.
“I don’t know who is there—it could be a bunch of rocks,” said Mayor Steve Cummings, who is spearheading the effort to raise awareness about the burial site and to try to set the historical record a little straighter.
Another problem with the memorial is the bronze statue, which was designed by the ltalian sculptor Gaetano Trentanove and cost $12,500 in 1911, or roughly $300,000 in contemporary currency.
“The statue doesn’t look anything like him,” said Jeffrey Behm, an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh who studies the archeology of historic Native Americans. “I mean he was a short muscular man; he wasn’t this tall Nordic-looking Indian.”
Then there is the problem of describing Oshkosh as peaceful and universally admired. Although he was instrumental in settling disputes between whites and natives that avoided bloodshed, he was also a veteran of the War of 1812 (on the side of the British), the Winnebago War of 1827 and the Black Hawk War; stood trial for murder; and died in a drunken brawl at the hands of his two sons.
Even among the Menominee, Oshkosh was not “beloved by all.” Some in the tribe believed that he had been too accommodating to white settlers and even disputed his status as chief.
In fact Oshkosh did not become head chief by birth or through acclamation of the Menominee people. Instead he was picked to serve in that role at a treaty signing in 1827 after federal officials determined that it was too hard to negotiate with the tribe because it did not have someone who was clearly in charge.
“You appear like a flock of geese, without a leader, some fly one way and some another,” said Lewis Cass, the Michigan territorial governor. “Tomorrow, at the opening of the council, we shall appoint a principal chief of the Menominee.” After talking among the Indians, the government officials decided on Oshkosh to be chief and gave him this warning: “You will take care and act like a man and not like a dog.”
Despite the controversies about his fitness to be chief and his actions as chief, it is a gross underestimation to say that Oshkosh’s biggest achievement in life was leaving his name behind.
“Whatever Oshkosh’s faults were, he led his people capably during one of the most difficult periods of their history and kept the tribe in their native Wisconsin,” wrote Scott Cross, the archivist at the Oshkosh Public Museum. Cross is the author of the 2002 biography “Like a Deer Chased by the Dogs: The Life of Chief Oshkosh.”
Oshkosh’s legacy lives on to this day in one of the most distinctive physical features of the region, a natural resource that has been cultivated at the hands of man and can be spotted from outer space. This is the Menominee forest, which takes up most of the reservation and stands out in satellite photos as a rectangular patch of green against the surrounding land, where farm fields have replaced the original woods.
The Menominee forest is the mainstay of the local economy and has been remarkably productive. According to Menominee Tribal Enterprises, the business arm of the tribe, the forest has yielded over 2 billion board feet of lumber, twice what was originally there, and yet “there is more forest volume standing today than when timber harvesting began.”
The tribe has employed a complex system of conservation practices to achieve this feat, but at the heart of its philosophy is a remarkably forward-looking saying that is attributed to Chief Oshkosh: “Start with the rising sun and work toward the setting sun, but take only the mature trees, the sick trees, and the trees that have fallen. When you reach the end of the reservation, turn and cut from the setting sun to the rising sun and the trees will last forever.”
William Heaney, who served as a board member at the Oshkosh Northwestern when his family was one of the paper’s major owners and who has taught from time to time in the UW Oshkosh anthropology department, has donated $5,000 toward the installation of a historical marker that would provide a fuller picture of who Chief Oshkosh was.
The problem is—what to put in a limited space to provide more context for the memorial and to describe the significance of Chief Oshkosh.
Mayor Cummings said his preference would be to have the Menominee tribe compose the language for the marker, but a discussion between the tribe and the city has not yet taken place.
A concrete walkway has been added to the Chief Oshkosh memorial to make it more accessible. Photo by Miles Maguire.