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Is It Time For Illinois To Stop Celebrating Columbus Day?

Woodland Period Village Mural

States like Hawaii, South Dakota and Alaska have replaced Columbus Day with the designation of 'Indigenous Peoples’ Day.' It's a trend that goes back decades, and in 2017 a lawwas signed that brought Illinois up to speed with that trend. Sort of.

The concept of Indigenous Peoples' Day was brought about by organizations that argue it is wrong to glorify European colonialism that included the genocide of native people in America. The law signed last year designates the last Monday of each September as Indigenous Peoples' Day in Illinois.

But some Native American organizations aren't pleased with that. They say the day should be celebrated in lieu of Columbus Day, which still stands as a state holiday in Illinois. Last year, the American Indian Center of Chicago issued the following statement:

“The American Indian Center was surprised to learn of this new bill and are disappointed that it passed. Indigenous people were not consulted during the crafting and passing of this bill. We believe that all peoples deserve respect, public comment and consultation in regards to holidays that affect us as a community. We view this as an insult and a threat to current progress made towards recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day on the Second Monday of October and a flagrant act of disrespect toward our community”.

Nichole Boyd is the director of the Native American House at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While she declined to weigh in the controversy, she helped plan eventsto celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day in lieu of Columbus Day, on October 8th. "It is truly for us a day of celebration and acknowledgment that we are still here. To celebrate our cultures, our languages, our families, our ancestors and our accomplishments," she says.

This is the first year the day will be acknowledged as a university-wide event, spokesperson Robin Kaler told The News-Gazette. The keynote speaker is Charlene Teters, a U of I alum, activist and artist who has long been vocal about Chief Illiniwek, who was retired as the official U of I mascot in 2007 but who maintains an active fan base and presence. 

Boyd says others who are interested in bringing about similar traditions at their own institutions can start by researching the land they are on. For instance, she says the U of I is, "On the land of over 13 tribes and we're working to build relationships with those tribal communities." Says Boyd, "Reach out to the Indigenous folks whose land you're on and ask them what they think is the best way to celebrate." She points to cities like Evanstonwho have declared the repurposing of Columbus Day within their own local governments.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.