— Peter “Wolf” Toth
(Dec. 15, 1986: Cherokee Chieftain Rededication)
Like the noble people whose heritage it depicts, the majestic Cherokee Chieftain sculpture has led a life of sad parallels marked by a string of relocations — some forced by progress, others for the monument’s own protection.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Some are uncomfortable talking about it, but our country’s early history was laced by the forced removal of others from their land, homes and sacred grounds. As students, we were taught these were negotiated settlements between the fledgling U.S. government and Native American nations whose history in the New World transcended centuries.
The Cherokee were no exception. Their tragic “Trail of Tears” was another forced relocation that took thousands of innocent lives and split families, all in the name of failed treaties and uncompromising progress. Some refused to go; hence, today’s two nations of Cherokee — the Western Band of Oklahoma and the Eastern Band whose predecessors took refuge in the North Carolina mountains.
Those who stayed made a bold and courageous decision.
Our Cherokee Chieftain has had no such option.
It has been moved when people said move it. It has withstood the savagery of weather and the menace of a termite infestation that almost destroyed it. It has suffered indignities at the hands of those too young or too uncaring to protect it or to honor its message from the past.
Thankfully, perhaps even miraculously, the Chieftain has survived because of the good deeds of a handful of visionaries — some in local government, some community volunteers — who embraced the challenge of restoring this beautiful monument, not once but twice ... first, in 1986, and most recently over the past couple of months.
Their awareness of our history, their belief in honoring those who walked this land before us and their commitment to returning some of the “kind” to mankind are admirable traits that restore one’s hope of a future shaped by the conscious meld of past with present.
The Chieftain’s longevity rests in the hands of those who share these values.
In 36 years, this telling work of art has been moved four times. It is a nomadic lifestyle already told in American history books time and again of a people whose contributions through diversity were grossly ignored.
It has been written, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” In its own way, the journeys of the Cherokee Chieftain are contemporary evidence.
Hungarian refugee Peter “Wolf” Toth, now an internationally acclaimed sculptor whose work honors Native American heritage, gave the statue to the people of Cleveland after spending weeks carving it in late 1973 from the bottom 30 feet of a lightning-damaged white oak tree on the back property line of the late Robert Card Sr. near the intersection of Parker and 15th streets.
The breathtaking 14-foot-tall monument, still attached to the tree’s roots, was moved by city crews in Spring 1974 and placed on the front lawn of what was then the Main Branch of the Cleveland Bradley Public Library. It remained 12 years, but was relocated to Johnston Park in December 1986 to provide more library parking. Thanks to local government leaders, community volunteers and Toth’s return visit to Cleveland, the statue was refurbished and rededicated.
Twenty-four years later the history-rich sculpture has been moved again — following complaints of its recent abuse in the downtown park. The Chieftain has been restored a second time and openly welcomed by the Museum Center at Five Points, where it now stands majestically in the front lawn on a new concrete and mountain stone pedestal.
It is a perfect fit because the museum too is a treasure trove of heritage and undying remembrance of those who shaped this land long before we walked the same trails.
Perhaps this travel-weary monument has finally found a permanent home.
Maybe now it will be given the proper care and full respect it is rightfully due.
Cherokee Chieftain has a long life ahead. Especially if we, its caregivers, learn from the lessons of our past.
And teach those lessons to our children who one day will guide our future.