Wood carving depicting Shawnee warrior Tecumseh planned at TMS
A dilemma over what to do with an aging sycamore tree that has been an icon at the Tecumseh Middle School (TMS) entrance for years is about to be turned into a piece of art honoring Tecumseh’s namesake. Artist Dr. Emil Szkipala, of Sterling Heights, is expected to begin a carving using a chainsaw on Friday, Oct. 12, at 9 a.m. with work continuing throughout Appleumpkin weekend.
“The sycamore tree has been a feature in the courtyard of our building and campus for many years,” said TMS Principal Rick Hilderley, “but as with many trees, it has aged.” He said it reached a point where the tree was losing limbs of a size that brought concerns that one could fall on a student, and a decision was made to eliminate the tree.
“When I heard that, I became interested in a section of the trunk being left that we could use for a carving,” Hilderley said. “I had in mind that Tecumseh has a nice Art Trail in town, but we don’t really have a good representation of our town’s namesake anywhere in the community, so I wanted to see if it was possible to do a rendering of Chief Tecumseh.”
Hilderley launched some research as he wanted the project to be done in a respectful way if it was going to be done. He first contacted the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Sault Ste. Marie and learned that the tribe most closely associated with Chief Tecumseh would be the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. After talking with a tribal secretary there, he was asked to put his plan in writing to be taken before the tribal’s executive committee.
In August, he received a letter from Teri Reed, the Tribal Secretary, stating that the Tribe would “endorse and support the project to honor Tecumseh for his leadership to his people and to all native nations.” They felt that using the sycamore tree was a great idea because the tribe believes in using native and natural resources whenever possible. The letter also noted that it would be important to portray a regal likeness of Tecumseh and to stay away from “stereotypical and comical wooden Indian” images.
Hilderley said while researching he found online images of a bronze statue of Tecumseh in southern Illinois and determined that was the kind of detail that he wanted for the carving.
“Native American experts say that this statue depicts what a Shawnee warrior would have looked like 200 years ago,” Hilderley said. “We want to be sure this is something people approve of.”
The Absentee Shawnee Tribe also suggested that the rendering face either to the east where the sun comes up, or the south “where we look for blessing from our grandmother.” Facing to the west was to be avoided because that direction “is associated with the direction that we lay our dead.”
Hilderley has also been in touch with Abel Cooper, president of the Leh-Nah-Weh Native American Organization, who said he was pleased with the direction the carving would be facing because it faces toward the Indian Mounds located by the Mill Pond where traditional Native American ceremonies were known to have been held.
“The Leh-Nah-Weh group is on board with us,” said Hilderley, “and they are also making plans to assist us on Friday.” The group plans to hold a blessing of the work before the project begins, a Sunday dedication, and will be bringing in some educational activities for the TMS students that Friday, including storytelling, dancing, and traditional drummers.
Cooper is also working on the possibility of having a generational relative of Tecumseh visit the city as an honored guest during the project.
“He lives in Bellefontaine, Ohio, and is 82 years old,” said Hilderley. “He might be coming up with his grandson, but that’s still being worked out.”
After seeing the picture of the statue and the detail that was being considered, Dr. Szkipala told Hilderley he’d likely need all three days for the project. Some of Dr. Szkipala’s previous work can be seen online at treecarvings.com. The artist’s fee would be approximately $1,800, but Hilderley said no taxpayer dollars would be used for this project. He said he would be applying for some grants and working with the Leh-Nah-Weh group and others for possible funding sources, which would actually come after the artwork is completed. Students also held a special Hat Day Friday, Sept. 28, where they could wear a hat to school and donate one dollar, with proceeds going toward the project.
“We were anticipating doing this by spring, but Dr. Szkipala had the time to do it now, so we thought it would be a good tie-in with the Appleumpkin Festival,” he said, adding that festival organizer Jan Fox, along with Economic Development Director Paula Holtz and City Manager Kevin Welch have been supportive and offered assistance.
The public is invited to stop by at TMS to watch the work in progress Oct. 12, 13, and 14. “We’ll have it taped off so people can watch without being too close to the work or be in danger,” Hilderley said. “I’m sort of interested myself in seeing how much detail you can get with a chain saw, but I’ve seen pictures of the artist’s work and he’s done it before, so I know he can do it.”