As the sound of a flute played in Pottawattomie Park on Monday, three people began shouting over the Native song. A divide within the Native American community of Chicago took center stage in Rogers Park at what was meant to be a celebration and news conference hosted by the Indigenous Peoples Day Coalition-Illinois.
The coalition, made up of 195 organizations and businesses across cultures, faith traditions and neighborhoods, intended to call on city, county and state officials to officially celebrate the history of Indigenous people on the second Monday in October. But three people with the Chi-Nations Youth Council, a local organization for Native youth, interrupted from the start, stating that one of the coalition’s founders “does not speak for us.”
Meanwhile, downtown, green, red and white flags soared in the air as Italian Americans instead celebrated Columbus Day.
Indigenous Peoples Day has a storied history as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day held on the second Monday in October. The city of Berkeley in California replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992. This year, President Joe Biden proclaimed Oct. 10 as Indigenous Peoples Day following his first proclamation recognizing the day in 2021.
Although Chicago Public Schools were closed Monday in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day, the celebration is not celebrated by the state of Illinois, Cook County or the city of Chicago.
In Rogers Park, only three of the expected eight officials spoke for the Indigenous Peoples Day news conference because of the protesters: Ald. Maria Hadden of the 49th Ward, state Sen. Mike Simmons and state Rep. Will Guzzardi, both Chicago Democrats. .
Each speaker emphasized the importance of recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. Hadden said she is still waiting for support for an ordinance she co-sponsored in the City Council that would make Indigenous Peoples Day an official city holiday. Anticipating new members in the upcoming election, she said she hopes the council can move past the “weird, sluggish politics.”
“Why can we have Juneteenth, but we can’t get Indigenous Peoples Day?” Hadden said. “I don’t know why this is controversial, and I really encourage people to have some courage to do what’s right.”
Anthony Tamez, one of the members of the Chi-Nations Youth Council, said their mission is not against Indigenous Peoples Day. The council celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day through a seed-swap at their garden.
“We are all on the same page … that Columbus Day needs to go,” Tamez said. “Where it comes in is who speaks first? And I think that’s where the rift comes in.”
Chicago specifically is home to one of the largest urban populations of Native Americans in the country. At the same time, Illinois has no federally-recognized tribes.
Rose Miron, a historian at the Newberry Library, said Chicago was an important site of trade and intertribal community long before white settlers arrived. But as settlers became interested in Chicago, Indigenous people were forcibly removed through several treaties, including the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 which marked the removal of all Native people from Illinois, Miron said.
The population returned in the 1950s when the U.S. passed an act that encouraged Native Americans to move off of reservations and into urban centers, including Chicago. While they were promised housing and support, they faced discrimination and poverty. But these populations banded together and forged enduring community centers and organizations that have lasted into the present, Miron said.
“I genuinely hope that in the future, the city of Chicago, Cook County, the state of Illinois, will all recognize that and really see the benefit in recognizing that history and the vibrancy of Native people today,” Miron, who is nonnative, said.
States, including Alaska, New Mexico and Oklahoma, and cities, such as Los Angeles, Seattle and Minneapolis, officially celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. But in Illinois, Indigenous Peoples Day is recognized on the second Monday in September and a bill to replace Columbus Day is stuck in committee.
Monday’s news conference started with Hadden reading the official Cook County land acknowledgment that states that dozens of tribal nations were the custodians and caretakers of the land before colonization. Land acknowledgments are meant not to move past violent history, but to acknowledge the harm that continues to occur through systemic inequity, Hadden said.
“Having holidays, being able to mark, to celebrate and to acknowledge together is part of a healing process, it’s part of a recognition of the trauma that we’re still experiencing,” Hadden said.
She said making Indigenous Peoples Day a holiday is one of the “bare minimums.”
Simmons, who represents a district that includes Rogers Park, said true justice for Native American community members involves recognition of the holiday and ensuring that Indigenous history and the present day impact of past wrongs is taught in schools.
“People always talk about Native Americans like they’re no longer here, and they still are here, they’re my constituents,” Simmons said.
Guzzardi, who represents the Northwest Side of Chicago, spoke as an Italian American.
“I’m really proud to be an Italian American, so proud in fact, that I know we can choose a better hero to honor,” Guzzardi said.
But several miles south in downtown Chicago, shiny plastic tassels in the colors of the Italian flag — green, white and red — sparkled in the wind. Hundreds lined the streets of East Wacker Drive and State Street under a bright afternoon sun, listening to a female singer belt out the Italian and American national anthems.
A smaller-than-usual selection of politicians joined the hundreds of spectators at the 70th annual Columbus Day Parade amid growing restlessness over the day commemorating the Italian explorer.
Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said he was thrilled to see the parade’s anticipated biggest return since the COVID-19 pandemic and that the event had one message: “Italian Americans are here to stay.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Onesti told the Tribune. “There’s over 500,000 of us in the Chicagoland area, and we’re here celebrating and flying the green, white and red of our flag today.”
More than two years ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot removed the city’s statues of Columbus after a bloody battle between police officers and protesters, the latter of whom were attempting to topple Grant Park’s statue of Columbus. Lightfoot then commissioned an ambitious review of Chicago’s public monuments as a means for “racial healing,” and the panel this summer recommended removing the Columbus statues permanently.
Lightfoot has said she has no plans to eliminate Columbus Day at the city level, but she nonetheless has clashed with Italian American groups in Chicago over controversy of the historical figure.
Just before the parade’s 1 p.m. kickoff, a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park called Abraham Lincoln: The Man, which the panel recommended the city revise or add narrative to, was spray painted about 12:30 p.m., according to a Chicago Police Department spokesperson.
Dripping with red paint around the statue’s neck, Avenge the Dakota 38 was painted in blue on the concrete in front it, along with “Dethrone the Colonizers” on the pedestal. On Dec. 26, 1862, U.S. forces executed 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, under Lincoln’s orders after a six-week uprising against settlers, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
On Monday, neither Lightfoot nor Gov. J.B. Pritzker were in attendance at the parade, though Pritzker’s opponent in the Nov. 8 general election, Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey, joined the festivities. Other politicians in attendance included Chicago Aldermen Nicholas Sposato, 38th, Brian Hopkins, 2nd, and Raymond Lopez, 15th, who is running for mayor, as well as several elected officials from nearby suburbs.
Onesti acknowledged the controversy surrounding the holiday, saying “narratives need to be broadened” but there is no need for acrimony.
“We want the Indigenous people to have their day,” Onesti said. “We want to celebrate with them. But there’s 364 other opportunities. Let us have our day.”
Bob Gavenda, a 73-year-old Italian American from Chicago Heights, said he came to the downtown festivities with his wife to celebrate his heritage — and send a message to city officials to reinstate the Columbus statues in Chicago.
“Some people like to tear things down,” Gavenda said, holding up a “Return Columbus now!” sign in reference to statues that have become a flashpoint in the debate over Columbus and the plight of Indigenous people. “We like to build things up and remember our past.”
Michelangelo Burdi, 63, of Des Plaines, draped a large Italian flag over one shoulder and passed around a tray of pastries. He said after a trying pandemic that included national criticism of Columbus, he was glad to be back celebrating his Italian American heritage this year.
“Well, I come from a country with a lot of history,” Burdi said “I’m proud to be both. I’m proud to be Italian, and I’m proud to be American.”
Back in Rogers Park, members of the Native American community and event attendees agreed that Columbus Day should no longer be recognized. Les Begay, an Indigenous Peoples Day Coalition-Illinois founder, said the movement to change this holiday is not “anti-Italian” but “anti-Columbus.”
“Sharing a day with Columbus, my comparison is that it’s like sharing Juneteenth with Confederate memorial day,” said Begay, who is a member of the Dine’ nation.
But some members of the community disagree on how this change should occur.
As one of the coalition founder’s Begay began to speak around 11 a.m., Janie Pochel a representative of Chi-Nations Youth Council shouted into a megaphone, alleging that Begay is a “white supremacist who commissioned an ‘all lives matter’ mural.”
Begay said he served on the board of directors for the American Indian Center in 2020, when the center commissioned a mural for the building that read “All Life Matters.” Begay said no one on the board knew about the mural until it was painted on the side of the building.
The executive director of the AIC at the time, Heather Miller, had discussions with the artist about the mural, Begay said. On Nov. 4, 2020, the Chi-Nations Youth Council released an open letter sent to Miller that aimed to start a public dialogue about “anti-blackness in the Chicago Native community and the American Indian Center.”
On Nov. 5, 2020, the board of the AIC released a letter apologizing for the mural, and it was taken down.
“It’s too close to ‘All Lives Matter,” Begay told the Tribune Monday. “Once we saw, I’m glad we took quick action.”
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The youth council differs from the coalition in approach, not in goal, and part of this rift is generational, Tamez, 23, said.
Tamez said the organization wants a say on who is allowed to represent them in the pursuit of progress, even when the result is the same.
“Those people who ultimately do get things done, they are uplifted in our community, and they are given a platform until the day they die, until after they die,” he said.
Begay said the most important thing is the formal recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day. After the initial interruption, he pulled himself from the speaker lineup and answered questions outside while the news conference resumed indoors.
“It’s all about the day, it’s about changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in spite of what happened today,” he said.