200 Years of Illinois: Black Hawk Eternal

Lorado Taft was at the height of his powers when he created The Eternal Indian, the towering concrete statue that watches over the Rock River in Lowden State Park near Oregon. The ceremony to dedicate the statue took place on July 1, 1911, with Taft in attendance, along with other members of the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony, an institution Taft had founded thirteen years earlier. As Allen Stuart Weller wrote in his biography of Taft:

Taft had observed a reinforced concrete chimney being built at the Art Institute, and the thought came to him that he could make a reinforced concrete American Indian. In 1907, Taft interested John G. Prasuhn, a young German sculptor with engineering experience with the material. Taft created a working model six feet tall, but he decided that the finished work should be forty-two feet on a base of six feet. Prasuhn worked throughout the bitter winter and early spring of 1911 to a successful conclusion of the monumental work.

Visitors quickly dubbed the statue “Black Hawk” and still use the name today. The Sauk chief Black Hawk had led an alliance of Native American peoples in the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi River, the Black Hawk War of 1832, and he remained a vivid figure in state lore and history. Taft, however, had crafted the work with another idea in mind:

Taft himself did not seek to accurately represent the historic Native American person named Black Hawk, but formed a generalized likeness of the American Indian—a figure at peace with the world of nature, who did not understand or participate with the acquisitiveness of the white man. In this Taft accorded with a then popular notion in American sculpture of the “noble savage,” which the scholar Timothy Garvey summarized: “the Indian has long been thought to embody the purity and nobility of natural man uncorrupted by contact with higher civilization.”

Indeed, Taft’s contemporaries found his creation profoundly moving. On July 12, 1911, Daniel H. Burnham wrote to Taft: “Since the Black Hawk was unveiled, I have been coming: I am going again tomorrow. Each day I have had it in mind to hunt you up and tell you what a deep impression the statue made on me. It is the best thing of its sort done in my day, and the sort is the highest. . . . The superb simplicity of the thing! I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart.”

By the one hundredth anniversary of the unveiling, the statue inevitably needed repairs. A nonprofit raised most of the $900,000 needed to restore The Eternal Indian, but needed a promised $350,000 grant from the state to put the project over the top. That grant, like so much else, was delayed by the state budget fight in Springfield. The conservator in charge of the restoration bowed out in May of 2016 after disputes over pay and the methods of the project’s chief engineer. Taft’s work, meanwhile, remains cocooned in scaffolding.