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Lightfoot’s Plan To Bring Back Columbus Statue Irks Indigenous Activists

A prominent Indigenous activist said Mayor Lightfoot didn't do enough to consult with Native people before saying she expects the Columbus statue to return.

Crews remove the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park the morning of July 24, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — An activist said Mayor Lori Lightfoot didn’t consult Indigenous leaders before announcing that she expects a controversial Christopher Columbus statue to return to Grant Park.

Lightfoot said last week she “fully” expects the statue to return, though she did not say how or when that will happen. The city removed the statue in a secretive, middle-of-the-night operation in July 2020 after protesters tried to pull it down, but it has long been a source of contention.

Indigenous activist Les Begay said Lightfoot has not consulted enough with the city’s Indigenous community and he was shocked by her statement.

“It would be nice to be included in these conversations rather have to talk to the department and the Mayor’s Office after the fact,” said Begay, a member of the Diné Nation, co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples Day Coalition of Illinois and long a volunteer for the American Indian Center.

The statue has been in storage, its fate uncertain, while the city-created Monuments Project advisory committee has reviewed public monuments to determine if they’re problematic and what should happen to them. In February 2021, the group flagged 40 statues — including three Columbus statues — as possibly problematic.

But the committee’s members have not said what they think should happen to such monuments.

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions about how Indigenous people were consulted before Lightfoot’s announcement. The spokesperson said the Chicago Monuments Project report and its recommendations will be shared in the coming weeks.

Begay said he expressed to the Mayor’s Office that, as an Indigenous person, he wanted to be involved in the monument review process, but he was never contacted.

The advisory committee does include multiple Indigenous representatives.

Begay said Lightfoot should have contacted more people in the Native community.

“It was disingenuous for [Lightfoot] to talk about not bringing it back and then in an article saying that she was,” Begay said.

Lightfoot has defended the statue and the city’s celebration of Columbus Day in the past. She previously said she will not support changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day as a city holiday. The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans has also fought for the Grant Park statue and two other Columbus statues to return.

But the statue has faced controversy since its start. Though Columbus is still seen as a hero to some for “discovering” America, the land was populated by Indigenous people before his arrival — and his actions led to mass genocide, rape and torture of Native people.

Begay has fought for Indigenous people to get more recognition in the city, forming the Native American Community Engagement Council in January with 11 other advocates, he said. Officials from the Mayor’s Office of Community Engagement have agreed to meet with the council to discuss how to move forward, Begay said.

Begay hopes the meeting will help Chicago’s Indigenous people gain recognition with city officials. He said it’s been difficult to get “attention from most politicians” historically since Native people make up a small percentage of the city’s population.

“We’re kind of forgotten,” Begay said. “History has not been kind to us in education, so they don’t know that we still exist. … You’d be surprised at the amount of people that tell me we didn’t know that Native people are still around.”

In November, the city passed a resolution acknowledging Chicago as being home to a “vibrant urban Native community” with more than 120 tribal nations. The resolution also established a land acknowledgement, which is displayed on the city’s website.

Begay called the resolution a significant step in acknowledging Chicago’s Indigenous peoples — but reinstalling the Columbus statue would be a a huge step back in progress, he said.

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