Fort Wayne’s culture wars seen anew this Thanksgiving through statues

While citizens across the U.S. tear down statues, I lift up local art depicting this area’s first inhabitants, the Native Americans.

Among these few public works are Hector Garcia’s Chief Little Turtle (1976), a 10-foot bronze sculpture located in Headwaters Park. With one hand open in communication and the other closed in defiance, the figure challenges those crossing the footbridge over the St. Mary’s River into the Old Fort.

When I was a Brownie and a fourth grader studying Indiana history in the 1980s, I spent nights at this fort pretending to be a guard or a prisoner stuck in the pillory. The central theme of my education was that Fort Wayne began when white settlers developed Kekionga, former capital of the Miami tribe. In that context, Little Turtle’s statue—outside the fort—presented confusion about “the good guys versus the bad guys.”

Today, I live in New York City where I observe my hometown from a distance. The lessons I learned as a child reflect narratives told to Americans on a national scale from an early age. Statues are tangible evidence of sometimes skewed perspectives.

A bust of Cheif Little Turtle by Sufi Ahmad in the Flagstaff Bank Building at Wayne St. and Calhoun St.

As we prepare for Thanksgiving 2020 in an election year during a global pandemic that has exposed racial inequities, Fort Wayne’s few Native American sculptures are especially poignant. They exist in contrast to an army of General “Mad” Anthony Waynes.

Earlier this year, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Charlie Savage examined the “culture wars” brewing in Fort Wayne in a piece he wrote for Politico. He focused on Wayne Day, a new annual event honoring the city’s namesake.

“On one level, to grow up in Fort Wayne was to be saturated in references to Anthony Wayne and the Native Americans he fought,” Savage writes. “I opened my first savings account at a branch of Anthony Wayne Bank, across Anthony Boulevard from an ice cream parlor that served massive ‘Mad Anthony’ sundaes.”

Savage and I attended North Side High School, home of the former “Redskins,” recently renamed the “Legends.” His article revealed just how much my sense of my hometown was manipulated, right down to the visuals I absorbed every day.
Garcia’s Little Turtle statue appeared in a photograph in Savage’s article, too.

Recently, I spoke to Garcia, now 86, in a series of phone conversations. He believes his sculpture of Little Turtle may be Fort Wayne’s first and only freestanding sculpture depicting the Miami chief.

“Little Turtle was left out to dry,” says Garcia, who has also created several renderings of Wayne, including a relief for Wayne High School.

A bust of Chief Little Turtle on the Main Street side of the Allen County Courthouse by Brentwood S. Tolan (1902).

Before Fort Wayne celebrated the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, the only sculptural reference Garcia found of the chief was a bust on the Allen County Courthouse.

Naturally, Wayne maintained a high profile in the city named for him. The most prominent works are the equestrian statue in Freiman Square and the smaller aluminum relief on Anthony Wayne Bank.

But in the summer of 1975, Garcia asked a pointed question to members of Fort Wayne’s American bicentennial committee: “What about the other person in our history?” As an answer, Garcia earned a commission to build an imposing statue honoring Little Turtle, whose real name was Mihšihkinaahkwa.

Little Turtle led the Miami within a coalition of tribes that surrendered to Wayne in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. A year later, the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 resulted in the U.S. acquiring large tracts of land, including “one piece six miles square, at or near the confluence of the rivers St. Mary's and St. Joseph's, where [F]fort Wayne now stands, or near it.”

Knowing he could not stop the arrival of white settlers, Little Turtle encouraged his people to assimilate in order to survive. He died in the area in 1812. In 1846, U.S. troops forced approximately 300 souls out of northeastern Indiana by way of the canal boat network, according to a historic preservation officer representing the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

The Miami people settled in Kansas until the U.S. government relocated them to Oklahoma in the 1870s. Today, the Miami population includes more than 5,800 enrolled citizens who are scattered throughout all 50 states and beyond, according to a historic preservation officer representing the Miami Tribe. A bust of John Nuckols by Hector Garcia (1985) in Hanna Park at Maumee Ave. and Harmar St.

Garcia, a South Bronx native, is of Puerto Rican heritage. He wonders if growing up outside of Fort Wayne may have made him sensitive to people living on the margins. He also sculpted Jesuit Priest (1974), located near the Three Rivers Water Filtration Plant and John Nuckols (1985), a bust of Fort Wayne’s first African American city councilperson.

Garcia’s challenge with Little Turtle was to envision a likeness based on few existing images.

Through his observations of Native Americans and others who live close to the land, Garcia developed a composite sketch, an “amalgam,” of what Little Turtle might have looked like.

Forming the sketch model, which was about 2-feet tall, was sometimes emotional, not unlike a conversation. Garcia gave this early rendering a nickname: “Turtle.” Turtle’s prominent features included “high cheekbones, a rectangular face, a strong jaw, and a proud chest.”

The actual statue was more technical and required months of planning and execution. In the vacant Journal Gazette building on South Clinton Street, he first molded Chief Little Turtle with oil-based clay. A photograph from that time shows Garcia astride a ladder. His shoes are roughly the size of Little Turtle’s kneecaps.

Then he and his wife and children covered the massive figure with plaster to form a cast. Garcia drove the cast, divided into sections, to the foundry in Michigan. The completed work was revealed in a 1976 dedication ceremony that also honored the restored Canal House on E. Superior Street.

Over the years, Garcia has met a few Miami descendants. They thanked him for representing their history with a respectful statue.

Another sculptor, whom a few local artists describe as Garcia’s “rival,” was Sufi Ahmad. An art teacher at the University of St. Francis, Ahmad grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and died in Fort Wayne in 2011.

Lenore DeFonso holds artwork by Sufi Ahmad.

Like Garcia, Ahmad had sculpted several busts of local leaders, including Little Turtle and Wayne, that appear in the rotunda of Flagstar Bank, ironically on E. Wayne Street. But Princess Mishawaka (1987), located in Mishawaka, stands out as especially unique. Based on an early American legend, Ahmad’s interpretation reveals an athletic woman with a regal bearing.

Ahmad’s partner Lenore DeFonso remembers how Ahmad made the large sculpture in the side yard of their home on Oakdale Avenue.

“It’s my favorite of Sufi’s pieces,” DeFonso says. “It’s her pose and the way she sits on the rocks. She is reaching back for an arrow in her quiver. She looks like she’s ready to deal with whatever comes her way.”

A statue of Princess Mishawaka by Sufi Ahmad (1987) at Mishawaka City Hall.

Sadly, as Charlie Savage wrote in his Politico piece, Native Americans would continue to suffer under this country’s broken oaths and unfair treaties, even though Wayne had “promised the rest of the territory would remain Indian land forever—hence ‘Indiana.’”

And for generations, Wayne’s images have dominated a city that systematically removed its earliest citizens.

Read more articles by Ann Votaw.

Ann Votaw is a New York City-based writer who was born in Fort Wayne.
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