Can Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day co-exist?

By June Leffler

Chicago enters the debate over whether or not to celebrate Christopher Columbus, a man whose legacy has turned sour. Chicago designated Monday as Indigenous People’s Day, to be celebrated in conjunction with Columbus Day. Sharing the day might sound like a judicious move, but some Italian Americans are not happy about it.

Increasingly, cities like Seattle and Minneapolis are designating Indigenous People’s Day to celebrate the contributions of Native Americans and acknowledge their hardships. Four states – Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota don’t celebrate Columbus Day at all.

“In his own words, he felt justified and permitted by divine permission to objectify the natives he first met, to enslave them and brutalize them,” said Vincent Romero, Executive Director of the American Indian Center of Chicago. “It is a huge reminder of how our people are marginalized and were not even seen as human beings.”

“Italian Americans have contributed to culture as much as any ethnic group, don’t you think we could have one day to celebrate the contributions of our heritage and forefathers,” said Louis Rago, the Columbus Day Parade grand marshal and president of the Italian American Relations Foundation.

The resolution approved by the City Council on Sept. 14 applies only to this year, while an ordinance in the works would annually designate the day. The resolution passed with a 50 to 0 vote.

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th ward), Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th ward) and Alderman Joe Moore (49th ward) sponsored the resolution.

A coalition of organizations, led by the American Indian Center, brought the issue to the aldermen. The Chicago American Indian Center is located in Pawar’s ward.

Pawar’s chief of staff Jim Poole said that “there is some concern around Columbus Day, if it were to supplant that day. We believe the two can rest side by side.”

In Chicago, this October 10th will recognize both natives and Columbus.

“The aim is not to take Columbus Day off the books” said Poole. “That was not the desire of the community in Chicago.”

The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans hosts the annual Columbus Day Parade, a 64-year-old Chicago tradition adopted by Italian Americans to celebrate their own history, contributions and culture. It’s no small event, expected to have over 150 floats and marching units in this year’s celebration.

“I’ve never been opposed to Indigenous People’s Day. I’ve always agreed that atrocities were suffered by Native Americans, but I don’t think it’s all the fault of Christopher Columbus,” said Rago, stating that Columbus didn’t make contact with North American natives, and that settlers and colonizers are the ones to blame.

Rago and Romero agreed on a few points. They both believe all ethnic groups should have a space to celebrate their own culture and history. They invite those of other ethnic groups to celebrate with them. They both view their communities as being marginalized throughout American history.

Similarly, the Polish community fought for Pulaski Day soon after Martin Luther King Jr. Day became official. Pulaski Day became a legal holiday in Illinois in 1985 to commemorate Casimir Pulaski’s contributions to American independence. After 10 years of being a full state holiday, mandating the closing of schools, the legislature allowed school districts to opt out, causing hurt feelings within the Polish community.

It is the historical context of the man, Columbus, that Romero and Rago cannot see eye to eye on.

“It seems as though the promoters of Christopher Columbus Day don’t want to hear what we have to say,” said Romero. “We would like to invite them to a forum. See if we can come to a correct history resolution.”

The official resolution designates Indigenous People’s Day as Oct. 10, 2016.

Rago said the simplest fix is to have two separate days to celebrate the respective groups, believing sharing a day is watering down the importance of each other’s heritage.

“Wouldn’t they want their own day?” he asked.

Romero said that many Native American organizations do not recognize Columbus Day and instead might have a holiday from work for Native American Heritage Day, the day after Thanksgiving.

This might suit Rago’s suggestion, but members of the Native American community felt that wasn’t enough, as they believe Columbus Day is “adding insult to injury” every year.

The proposed ordinance is expected to go to the committee on Budget and Government Operations. If approved there, it would go to the City Council for a vote. Poole anticipates that the budget will take  precedence in upcoming committee meetings, but believes the ordinance will be decided on by the end of the year.

Poole said he hasn’t heard of a “robust opposition,” but believes that any concerns will be brought up once the ordinance is discussed at the committee hearings.

The American Indian Center is holding a celebration of Indigenous People’s Day at the quad of the University of Illinois Chicago on Monday at noon. On the same day, the Columbus Day festivities  begin with a 9 am mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, 1224 W. Lexington St. and a  wreath laying ceremony in Arrigo Park at the Columbus statue, followed by the parade at 12:30 pm on State Street.