ROGERS PARK — Maritza Garcia, a member of the Mississippi Choctaw Tribe, has been dancing since she was a little girl. Dancing is a form of prayer for her, and when she performed a traditional jingle dress dance on Monday, she danced for healing.
“The reason why I came out here is because I’m from Chicago and I want to give back to my people,” Garcia said. “I want to pray for them, and I know we need a lot of healing.”
Garcia was among a coalition of Native activists, allies and elected officials who gathered Monday at Pottawattomie Park, 7340 N. Rogers Ave., to advocate for changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Though activists have pushed city, state and county officials to make the change for years, Columbus Day remains the de facto local holiday.
On Friday, President Joe Biden issued a presidential proclamation calling on Indigenous Peoples’ Day to be celebrated along with Columbus Day on Oct. 11. Illinois began recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the last Monday in September in 2017, NBC Chicago reports, though some lawmakers have since introduced legislation to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“Each October, when Columbus is honored, it further diminishes Native people, our history and culture,” said Les Begay, a member of the Diné Nation and co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois.
Chicago Public Schools ditched Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in February 2020. But legislative changes to swap the holidays have stalled, despite multiple efforts and more than 100 other cities and nine other counties across the country who have made the change. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not supported making it a city holiday.
In May, the Cook County Board deferred a vote on a resolution from Commissioner Brandon Johnson to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Reconciliation Day every second Monday of October throughout the county.
Last week, a majority of the board voted to defer the resolution a second time. Johnson and state Sen. Mike Simmons (7th) pointed out the contradiction in celebrating Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, but not Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“How is it possible that you have bodies of government that were willing to recognize Juneteenth, to celebrate the official day that the final slaves heard of their emancipation, and then a few months later, celebrate the individual that’s responsible for bringing in one of the most brutal systems of oppression that we have seen in the hemisphere of the West?” Johnson said.
Roughly 7,000 people signed a petition supporting the county resolution, and almost 180 organizations — including the Chicago Teachers Union, the Italian American Heritage Society of Chicago and several religious organizations — have indicated their support, according to a news release from the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois.
Still, some have resisted replacing Columbus Day, saying the holiday holds historical significance for Italian Americans. Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), who is Italian American, urged Italian Americans to denounce racism and cultural destruction and support eschewing Columbus Day.
“There is a vocal minority that clings to a hurtful and oppressive symbol of cultural destruction,” La Spata said.
Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) said the conversation about replacing Columbus Day isn’t about diminishing the role of Italian Americans. Hadden co-sponsored an amendment in 2019 to establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Chicago. The city recognizes the day, but not as a city holiday.
“We can celebrate Italian American heritage month, and we can celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” she said.
State Rep. Delia Ramirez (4th) announced at the rally she plans to re-introduce a bill that would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day across the state, including in all Illinois public schools.
Cook County is home to the ninth-largest Urban Native community in the country and occupies the territory of many Sovereign Nations, including the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa, as well as the Ho-Chunk, Miami, Sac and Fox, Peoria and Illini, according to the county resolution.
Begay hopes wider attention around the issue will help make the commemoration a reality.
“I know our ancestors have been fighting for this day,” Garcia said, adding that if Indigenous Peoples’ Day replaces Columbus Day, “it’s gonna feel real good because we know our ancestors fought for this and that we continued their legacy.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: