Chicago’s Indigenous community, politicians rally for recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day


Jack Austin/Daily Senior Staffer

Marissa Garcia performs a traditional jingle dance at Monday’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration in Pottawattomie Park.

Jack Austin, Senior Staffer

Drum beats and incantations rang out Monday morning in Pottawattomie Park while Marissa Garcia, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, performed a healing dance called a “jingle dance” in a traditional dress she made herself. 

Garcia was among a crowd of more than 50 people who gathered to celebrate and support the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on every level of government in Illinois. 

“When I dance, I dance for the people, I dance for my family, I dance for myself,” Garcia said. “It’s nice to see all these people gathered here today to fight for what we’ve been fighting for, for all of our lives.”

Les Begay, a member of the Diné nation, said he was frustrated so few commissioners stood up to support the county resolution. 

“How could you have Racial Equity Week, just three weeks ago, and not be in favor of (Indigenous Peoples’ Day)?” asked Begay, co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois. “This is (also) about racial justice. I’m confused why it’s such a difficult vote for them.” 

The coalition chose Pottawattomie Park to host the rally for its symbolic power acknowledging indigenity, according to Begay. 

Pamala Silas, a member of the Menominee and Oneida nations, spoke of the importance of remaining positive, preserving culture and educating on a wide scale.

“We have to stay grounded in what we are trying to do on a larger scale,” said Silas, associate director at Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. “We have to start with the people whose lands were taken.” 

For many Indigenous people at the event, the push for this holiday has been a part of a lifelong fight for recognition. 

Sergio Serone, a descendant of Indigenous tribes from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, said Indigenous Peoples’ Day would give recognition to Native people living in Chicago and beyond. 

“Just the acknowledgement, that’s all we are asking for,” Serone said. “For people to know that we are still here, we live amongst everyone else, we still practice our old ways.”

Misconceptions about both Christopher Columbus and Indigenous people are still abound, Begay said. He attributed this largely to tendencies in the education system to tell the story from the perspective of colonizers.  

Schools will often teach the story of Columbus discovering America and myths surrounding Thanksgiving, but Begay said the history of Native people is overlooked. 

“History is written by the conquerors,” he said. “There is so much rich history of Native people that is just erased and forgotten.” 

State Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Chicago) first introduced a bill to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day last year. She said she was met with an onslaught of emails, phone calls and Facebook messages with angry constituents who wanted the holiday to stay. 

Ramirez introduced a new bill at Monday’s event that would recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day statewide. 

The Cook County Board of Commissioners delayed the vote to change the holiday, formerly known as Columbus Day, to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in May, and then again last week. The most recent delay came in response to pushback from Italian American organizations on the change. 

Chicago Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) said defendants of Columbus say the date is meant to celebrate Italian American heritage. La Spata, who is of Italian descent, rejected this idea and asked for other Italians to not celebrate Columbus. 

“There is this vocal minority that clings to a hurtful and oppressive symbol of destruction,” La Spata said. “The silent majority of Italians need to step out of neutrality. Neutrality in a racist society is choosing racism.” 

Medill Prof. Patty Loew, director of Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research and citizen of the Mashkiiziibii, said there are aspects of Italian culture like food, music and architecture that should be celebrated. But she said to celebrate Columbus is to perpetuate pain. 

“Why do we celebrate a wicked colonizer who brought slavery and violence and land loss to an entire continent of people?” Loew said. “Decolonization is, for me, an attempt to look seriously at our institutions and the power imbalances” 

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