Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition Join Elected Officials to Advocate for Columbus Day to be Locally Renamed

Local elected officials joined the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois to call for Columbus Day to be renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Day Oct. 10 at a celebration and press conference held in Pottawatomie Park.

Local elected officials joined the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois to call for Columbus Day to be renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Day Oct. 10 at a celebration and press conference held in Pottawatomie Park.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrates and honors the history and culture of Native Americans, which began as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day. In 2021, Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to formally commemorate the holiday. This year, 14 states and the District of Columbia also officially observed the holiday. 

Although students at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were given the day off in commemoration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day according to the CPS website, neither the City of Chicago, Cook County nor the state of Illinois officially recognize the holiday — what Les Begay, co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois, said he would like to see change during the Rogers Park event. 

49th Ward Alderwoman Maria Hadden was joined by Illinois State Representative Will Guzzardi and State Senator Mike Simmons to announce their intent to pursue legislation which would change the name of the holiday on both the city and state levels. 

During the press conference, Begay said he was not interested in sharing the day with Christopher Columbus. He said the name change would immediately affect the Native American community in the Chicago-area and beyond. 

“It gives us recognition, we’re very much marginalized and we have been for 500 years,” Begay told The Phoenix. “There’s so much talk about racial equity and social justice and human rights, we’re not even included in the conversation.”

Members of the local indigenous community performed cultural arts before the press conference, including Maritza Garcia, who performed a traditional Jingle Dress dance.

Hadden began her remarks by reading the Cook County Land Acknowledgement statement that recognizes the past wrongs and current harms colonization and Native American removal has created for Indigenous people and tribal groups. 

Hadden is a co-sponsor of a proposed city council ordinance which would make Indigenous Peoples’ Day an official city holiday. While the ordinance currently lacks sufficient support to pass through city council, Hadden said she hopes attitudes change once new members join the council following the upcoming Chicago municipal elections. 

“Having holidays, being able to note, to mark, to celebrate and acknowledge together is part of the healing process,” Hadden said during the press conference. “It’s part of the trauma that we’re still experiencing.”

The press conference had fewer speakers than were originally scheduled and was moved inside the park’s fieldhouse after three protestors associated with the Chi-Nations Youth Council, a local Native activist group, interrupted Begay’s remarks, shouting into a megaphone that he is a white-supremacist and saying he does not speak for them. Members of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition, including Begay, delivered remarks to a smaller audience after the politicians finished. 

The protestors took issue with a mural commissioned by the American Indian Center in 2020, which read “All Life Matters,” when Begay was a member of the organization’s board of directors. 

Guzzardi, co-chair of the Illinois House Progressive Caucus, acknowledged his Italian American heritage during his remarks and said he is in favor of choosing a different figure to honor as an Italian hero and source of ethnic pride instead of Columbus.

“I know we can choose a hero who reflects our values, and we can acknowledge someone who’s not a part of mass murder and genocide,” Guzzardi said.

Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who led four separate expeditions to modern day Latin America on behalf of the Spanish monarchy, spurring the widespread European exploration and colonization of the Americans. In the century after Columbus’ arrival in 1492 55 million people died from violence or disease brought to the continent by Europeans. By 1600 90% of the indigenous population had died according to a 2019 study by The World Economic Forum.

During the 20th century, Columbus Day emerged as a day of pride for some Italian Americans. At the same time the event in Rogers Park was occurring, hundreds gathered downtown for the 70th annual Columbus Day Parade.

The movement in recent years to condemn Columbus and replace Columbus Day has been controversial among some Italian Americans who celebrate him as an Italian hero. The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA) have opposed recent efforts in Chicago to remove statues of Columbus in the city. Ron Onesti, president of the JCCIA, said ending Columbus Day would be a detriment to the Italian American community. 

“It started over 125 years ago and it is not as much about Colubmus himself and his accomplishments and more about what Columbus as an icon has come to mean,” Onesti said. “This is what our grandparents and great grandparents grew up with.”

This year, some cities including New York and Boston celebrated both Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Italian Heritage Day on Oct. 10, according to municipal websites. Onesti said he would not support the implementation of a similar holiday in Chicago. 

“What ethnic group should be dictated to what their heroes and icons should be,” Onesti said. “What ethnic group would allow that, we want the same respect any other group would want.”

Simmons has previously been supportive of past efforts in the general assembly to install Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Illinois. He said commemorating the holiday is the first step towards reimagining justice for Indigenous Americans. 

“As a Chicagoan, I’m really interested in talking about what does that look like right here in this city, right here in Cook County,” he said. “It is important to talk about that history of erasure, about that history of physical violence and systemic violence that still rears its head on this community.”

A bill introduced in the Illinois General Assembly last year would replace Columbus Day however, it stalled and is yet to be called to a vote on the house floor despite pressure from progressive legislators.

Featured image by Heather Higgins | The Phoenix

Griffin Krueger

Griffin Krueger