Lawmakers, tribe members say Monday’s holiday should honor Indigenous peoples — instead of Columbus — across Illinois
Politicians and activists from across Cook County said those defending Columbus Day need to recognize the colonialism and violence associated with the explorer.
Lawmakers and activists gathered at Pottawattomie Park in Rogers Park Monday to demand the replacement of Columbus Day with a holiday to honor Indigenous peoples across the state instead.
Last week, the Cook County Board of Commissioners delayed a vote on replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the second time this year. The rally, organized by the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition, called for action from Cook County Board members who they claimed were “clinging to a racist past” — although one lawmaker acknowledged part of the board’s objection was due to how some tribes treated descendants of their Black slaves.
The county is home to the ninth-largest urban Indigenous community in the U.S., and is situated on the land of the Ojibwe, Odawa, Ho-Chunk and other tribes, the resolution to replace the holiday said.
“We need more votes, to be honest with you,” said commissioner Brandon Johnson, the resolution’s sponsor, at Monday’s rally.
Johnson said he initially had enough support to pass the resolution, but the vote was delayed in May after pushback from commissioner Stanley Moore. Moore’s great-great-grandfather was a Black Choctaw whose family had been slaves to the Choctaw Nation.
Moore said despite his ancestors’ ties to the tribe, he other relatives of the freedmen have been denied recognition as a descendant, which prevents them from accessing benefits including education, housing assistance and casino profits. Last spring Moore and other descendants of freedmen from other tribes urged a “no” vote on the Indigenous Peoples’ Day resolution until the tribes recognized them.
On Monday, Johnson said he was going to “work together” with Moore to pass the resolution.
“We actually see it as an opportunity to lift up the issue of freedmen, and there are native tribes here committed to doing that while at the same time pushing for Indigenous people,” Johnson said. “That’s my brother, my colleague and he brings an important issue.”
However, Johnson also said he believes other Cook County board members were “intimidated” by a slew of Italian American groups who spoke out against changing the holiday.
“There are a handful of powerful folks that got into the heads of some of my colleagues and convinced them to still be afraid of Christopher Columbus,” he said. “He’s not chasing down and running down Black and Brown people anymore. We don’t got to be afraid of him.”
State Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, said she is introducing a bill in Springfield that will replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the state level, and will force schools across Illinois to recognize the change, she said.
Other alderpersons and state representatives from across Cook County also rallied for a change to the holiday.
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), who is Italian American, said those fighting to keep Columbus Day on the calendar represent a “vocal minority” of the Italian American community who “ignorantly cling to a past we do not need to hold to.”
“There is a line right now on the ground between the oppressed and the oppressor — those who have been hurt historically and those who cling to a symbol of hurt — and you need to decide where you’re going to stand,” La Spata said.
Last week, many from the Italian American community lobbied county commissioners to preserve the holiday, arguing that it represented pride for their Italian heritage and the Italian American community’s perseverance in the face of anti-immigrant violence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At Monday’s protest, however, Chicagoans from the Choctaw and Ojibwe tribes danced and spoke in their native tongues as they called to change a holiday they say represents Indigenous trauma.
Maritza Garcia, of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, performed a “healing” dance as her fellow Choctaw tribe member Dave Spencer sang along while banging a deerskin drum.
Wearing a handmade beaded medicine dress with otter furs and jingling lids from tobacco containers, Garcia said the dance is a way for her to pray for healing for herself and her family on the reservation.
“Our culture is still alive; our culture is still here,” Garcia said. “We might not live in teepees anymore. We adapted to the changes, but we’re not gone.”