A child at some point is going to see the new mural of Black Hawk in downtown Janesville and turn to a parent and ask, “What’s that?”
If Mom and Dad know something about Native American history, they’ll explain how Black Hawk resisted U.S. efforts to remove his people, the Sauk, from their homes in Illinois on the Rock River.
It’s called the War of 1832, but it was more like a chase—the U.S. chasing Black Hawk’s band through Wisconsin to the Mississippi River. Realizing he was overmatched, Black Hawk tried to surrender, but the U.S. wouldn’t relent. The Battle of Bad Axe was a massacre with dozens of Black Hawk’s people dying and few casualties on the U.S. side. Black Hawk escaped alive, though he was taken into U.S. custody shortly thereafter.
Janesville residents don’t have to understand the complicated and painful history of U.S. and Native Americans relations to appreciate Jeff Henriquez’s mural overlooking Main Street. It is an aesthetically pleasing addition to the downtown, and for many people that is enough.
But we hope this mural pushes some people to contemplate the potential deeper meanings.
What about Black Hawk does the mural honor? Many people would say it honors his bravery, but that answer leads to only more questions: Why do we admire his bravery? And would we admire it if Black Hawk had been successful in holding Sauk lands in Illinois, preventing white settlers’ expansion into the region?
Likely not. Black Hawk’s failure gives Americans permission to honor him.
Adoration for Black Hawk is nothing new. His name has been borrowed to identify everything from sports teams (the Chicago Blackhawks) to a prominent financial institution in Janesville (Blackhawk Community Credit Union).
Indeed, Black Hawk became a celebrity soon after being taken into U.S. custody. After he sat in prison for some time, the U.S. decided in 1833 to take him on a tour of U.S. cities to show him the overwhelming size and strength of the U.S., writes Eastern Kentucky history professor John Bowes in his book, “Black Hawk and the War of 1832.” One newspaper commented the crowds Black Hawk drew rivaled those for U.S. President Andrew Jackson.
Jackson’s policies, specifically the Indian Removal Act of 1830, became the justification for the brutal treatment of Native Americans trying to remain on their lands. In attempting to reclaim his people’s lands in Illinois, Black Hawk unleashed a U.S. military determined to eliminate Native American presence east of the Mississippi River.
Perhaps many Americans honor Black Hawk because they want to believe the U.S. engaged Native Americans in something like a fair fight. Americans don’t want to remember the U.S. as a bully or worse, killing thousands of Native Americans through forced relocations, such as the Trail of Tears.
The mural of Black Hawk in downtown Janesville is a beautiful artistic feat, to be sure. But ultimately, it says less about Black Hawk than it does about us.