Indigenous Peoples Day or Columbus Day? Groups say it’s time to leave Columbus behind

Chicago, Cook County and the state of Illinois all observe Columbus Day, but some are calling for new ways to celebrate Italian heritage.

SHARE Indigenous Peoples Day or Columbus Day? Groups say it’s time to leave Columbus behind
Maritze Garcia performs a traditional dance while wearing Indigenous American clothing at Pottawattomie Park in Rogers Park.

Maritze Garcia performs a traditional dance at Pottawattomie Park in Rogers Park in October 2021 to protest after Cook County commissioners refused to advance a measure to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times (file)

Chicago Public Schools are closed in recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day, but the rest of the city, county and state still officially mark the second Monday in October as Columbus Day. And as some Italians in the Chicago area celebrate with a parade downtown, Indigenous communities and progressive Italians say it’s time to move past Christopher Columbus as a figurehead and find new ways to honor Italian heritage.

Commemorating Columbus “speaks to how Indigenous history continues to be questioned as if it may be something that’s debatable,” said Arlene Duncan, interim executive director of the American Indian Center in Albany Park.

Duncan, of the Chippewa nation, said that although she can’t dictate how another group chooses to commemorate their culture, “I don’t believe that they have to be limited to one person; there are many ways you can celebrate your heritage.”

City crews use a crane to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from Grant Park in the darkness of early morning.

City crews use a crane to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from Grant Park in July 2020 on orders from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times (file)

She added that many supporters of Columbus “choose to believe their own facts” but that the “historical trauma and the annihilation of our people cannot be denied.”

Gabriel Piemonte, founder of the Italian American Heritage Society of Chicago, said Columbus is a proxy.

“When we talk about Columbus, we’re talking about so-called white culture, white heritage [and] celebrating colonialism,” he said. “It is conceivable that we could celebrate Italian heritage and culture without celebrating the genocide of Indigenous people.”

In recent years, there’s been a racial reckoning around Columbus and the legacy of genocide and land theft. Activists toppled Columbus statues in 2020 amid the George Floyd protests, and the city removed others as a public safety matter. In its final 2022 report, the Chicago Monuments Project, commissioned by then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot, recommended permanent deinstallation of all Columbus monuments in the city.

That doesn’t sit well with the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA), which holds its annual Columbus Day parade Monday along State Street.

JCCIA President Ron Onesti is now seeking the right to bring one of the statues to Chicago for parades and special events.

“We want to be treated in a manner that would be fair and respectable — the same respect any other ethnic group would be afforded,” he said.

In 2021, his group filed a lawsuit to return a Columbus monument to Arrigo Park in Little Italy. He said the JCCIA is scheduled to talk with city officials in coming weeks over what should be done with the Columbus statues, but that both sides are still far apart.

A spokesperson for the city confirmed the parties are engaged in “settlement discussions.”

Before he became mayor, then-Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson proposed legislation in 2021 to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. As recently as June, a tweet by Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, 33rd Ward, sparked outrage from some groups.

But Piemonte, with the Italian American Heritage Society, said most Italians are ambivalent about Columbus: “Either they think he’s a good guy but he did some stuff wrong, or they think he’s a racist but they’re not going to say anything because they don’t want to upset their great-uncle who loves the guy,” he said, adding there are better ways to celebrate Italian heritage, such as festas during summer months.

He added the city should take decisive action in its talks with JCCIA about the statues.

A poster of Italian Americans stands, surrounded by Italian and American flags, in the spot where a statue of Christopher Columbus once stood in Arrigo Park in Little Italy.

In an August 2021 photo, a poster of Italian Americans stands in the spot where a statue of Christopher Columbus once stood in Arrigo Park in Little Italy. The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans filed suit to return the statue to the park. A city spokesperson says the parties are engaged in “settlement discussions.”

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times (file)

“Mayor Johnson should just pull the Band-Aid off and tell these people these statues are never coming back,” Piemonte said. “He needs to destroy the pedestal in Grant Park so that there’s not even a possibility of that return.”

Piemonte also said the city should create new cultural anchors for Italian Americans and “do things that are symbolic and substantive.” He suggested erecting a monument to Italian immigrants, providing subsidies for Italian restaurants and retail on Taylor Street, and helping Italian Chicagoans who are aging in place and living in poverty. The city monument report echoed those sentiments.

Onesti is not backing down from Columbus, saying he does not want “other ethnic groups dictating … who their heroes and icons should be.” He added that Columbus’ detractors are “passing judgment on an individual who lived at a time [where] certain things were OK. There was nobody nice and [there were] a lot of issues going on 600 years ago.”

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk.

The Latest
The Wienermobile and a car were both going north on the tollway when the Wienermobile struck the car, lost control and rolled over, Illinois State Police said. No injuries were reported.
Stability was important for Cooney, whose dad is heading into his 13th season as Oswego’s head coach.
She played Harris several times as a guest on “SNL” in 2019, during the 2020 presidential election cycle.
Parent company Warner Bros. Discovery informed the league Monday that it will match the $1.8 billion per year offer by Amazon Prime Video. Turner has had an NBA package since 1984 and games have been on TNT since the network launched in 1988.
Birds rely on the moon and stars to travel, and bright lights from glass structures at night throw off their navigation. The $1.2 million project began in early June and will be completed before the fall migration.