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Lightfoot: No plans to change city holiday of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day

The mayor tries to ease a controversy that has infuriated Italian Americans. Her handpicked school board voted this week to change the October holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a 2019 photo
Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a 2019 photo
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday she has no plans to duplicate at the city level what her handpicked school board just did, pleasing Native Americans and infuriating some Italian Americans. That is, replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

“I do think we’ve got a lot more to do to make sure that we are aware and sensitive of the history but I absolutely have no plans to support any elimination of Columbus Day at the city level,” the mayor said at an unrelated news conference after unveiling her plan to bolster CTA security.

Lightfoot noted that for a number of years, the Chicago Public Schools have essentially celebrated both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day. She “thought that made sense.”

The mayor was not asked — nor did she explain — why, if she thought a shared holiday made sense, her handpicked school board forged ahead with the change that has so infuriated Italian American aldermen and civic groups. She would only say of Native Americans that “they are a marginalized community and ... there’s a lot more we can do.”

But Heather Miller, the executive director of the American Indian Center of Chicago, said the change was important because “we don’t want to celebrate someone who represents this idea of colonization and genocide.”

“When [Columbus’] ships arrived in this area, his actions and the actions that were taken by his crew did indeed lay the groundwork and the framework for slavery,” said Miller, an enrolled member of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma.

“For us, we want to make it clear that this is not anti-Italian American. It’s anti-Columbus,” Miller said. “It would be amazing if instead of celebrating someone that represents death, destruction, genocide and violence, perhaps we pick an Italian American figure that truly expresses things that make our communities great and express what it truly means to be American.”

Miller said that when she was in school, she never saw herself and her tribe’s true history represented in textbooks, and as she grew up, it was disappointing to realize the country’s students were learning a whitewashed history.

“I didn’t learn about my tribe,” Miller said. “I’m the one that had to be the teacher. That puts a lot of responsibility on our students when they’re just trying to succeed and be regular students. That’s the equity piece that we want to see within public schools.”

The greater Chicago area, home to 65,000 Native Americans representing more than 140 tribal nations, holds the third-largest Indigenous population in the United States, according to the American Indian Center of Chicago.

Of CPS’ 355,000 students, almost 11,000 identify as Native American/Alaskan, according to CPS figures.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), however, applauded Lightfoot for “drawing a line in the sand” by retaining the city holiday of Columbus Day and urged the mayor to go further and persuade the Board of Education to reverse its decision to drop Columbus Day.

“I’d like to see it at the school level, too, because with the direction we’re going, should we start throwing out history books? History books are filled with this same exact thing all around the world,” Napolitano said.

“I’ve got three kids in the public schools,” Napolitano said. “We’re getting calls all day. People are like, ‘Why are we re-writing history?’”

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), the City Council’s other Italian American alderman, said he would be “grateful and thankful” if Lightfoot could convince the school board to reverse its vote. He argued that “liberal” CPS should not be allowed to “rewrite history.”

The decision to drop Columbus Day came Wednesday in a split vote by the seven-member Board of Education, with two members voting against changing the CPS calendar. The October holiday had previously been recognized as “Indigenous Peoples Day/Columbus Day.”

Several community supporters spoke at the meeting, urging the board to go through with the change. Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argued then that it was the board’s “responsibility to lead on this issue.”

But the decision so outraged Sposato that he said he was “ready to go to war” with CPS. “Go ahead and have your damn Indigenous Peoples Day. Just don’t have it on Columbus Day,” Sposato said Thursday.

The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans also said it was mounting a campaign to reverse the action on behalf of the 500,000 Italian Americans in the Chicago area.

Asked Friday about all the backlash, Miller said she’s “very much used to that right now in this climate.”

“It is really disappointing to see people saying these really hurtful things,” Miller said. “It shows us that we still have a ton of education to do to show the difference between what actually happened and what people learned in school.”