Indigenous youth fight to replace Columbus Day in Chicago
Anthony Tamez-Pochel and Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez, of the 33rd ward pose together at Chicago’s City Council chambers. | Photo courtesy of Anthony Tamez-Pochel

CHICAGO—Native youth are taking a stand and calling for the replacement of the nationally recognized Columbus Day celebration. Afro-Indigenous organizer Anthony Tamez-Pochel, alongside local elected officials, is heading up the effort for legislation establishing Indigenous People’s Day as a holiday in Chicago. Tamez-Pochel (who is Cree and Lakota) has been doing community-based work as the co-president of the Chi-Nations Youth Council for several years. Last week, he drafted and submitted an ordinance to city council calling for the abolition of Columbus Day.

In 2017, Illinois lawmakers passed a similar bill that placed Indigenous People’s Day in September, while simultaneously keeping Columbus Day in October. This move was widely criticized by First Nations communities, who felt they had no voice in the matter. The American Indian Center initially released a statement saying they were “surprised” to learn of this new bill and are “disappointed that it passed.” They were also quick to point out that Indigenous people were not consulted during the crafting and passing of this bill.

The blatant disregard of First Nations communities is partly why Indigenous youth like Tamez-Pochel have decided to take matters into their own hands and re-submit the ordinance. “We don’t need to celebrate someone who’s committed genocide,” Tamez-Pochel says of his legislative initiative.

At only 20 years old, Tamez-Pochel has been published by Teen Vogue, helps oversee the First Nations Community Garden in Albany Park, and has been nationally recognized for his work on Indigenous rights and environmental justice. He is committed to educating the public on the widespread Indigenous genocide enacted by colonizers like Columbus.

Columbus’s violent legacy has been greatly watered down over the last century, thanks to several fictional re-tellings of his conquests. In the years following his initial journey, Columbus hit a number of nearby Caribbean islands, including the places that eventually became Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and even parts of the Southern U.S. As a consequence, many of the Indigenous tribes living in these places suffered great loss of life.

“A lot of groups were affected by Columbus, even though people tend to think it’s only American Indians,” says Tamez-Pochel. The activist says that conversations around the issue have previously been difficult because people don’t acknowledge the vast diversity of Native heritage. “In the past, the Native community here hasn’t always been very welcoming to other Indigenous groups.” Tamez-Pochel, who identifies as both Black and Indigenous, emphasizes that native communities exist outside of U.S. borders. “There are Natives from Canada, South America, Mexico—and even within the Black community.”

In many ways, Chicago is actually behind on this particular issue, with over 55 cities around the country having already replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. According to TIME, although the United Nations declared August 9 as International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in late 1994, Berkeley, Calif., had already replaced Columbus Day, the first U.S. city to do so.

Several elected officials have come out in support of Tamez-Pochel’s ordinance, with Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez, of the 33rd Ward, co-sponsoring the bill. Tamez-Pochel is currently on staff as the Alderwoman’s Neighborhood Services Coordinator and says she was the one who originally encouraged him to work with the Chi-Nations Youth Council and the American Indian Center to re-submit the ordinance. The resolution has also garnered the support of popular Democratic Socialist Alderman Carlos Rosas, from Chicago’s 35th Ward.

While the response has been mostly positive, there has been some pushback from people who feel the ordinance is erasing an important figurehead in history. “This isn’t an attack on Italian Americans or their heritage,” says Tamez-Pochel, “but as Indigenous people, I don’t think others always understand where we’re coming from.”

According to Tamez-Pochel, the ordinance promotes a more equitable and inclusive city for all Chicagoans. If passed, the legislation would bring more awareness to the contributions that the First Nations and American Indian people have made to Chicago. It would also highlight the plight of the Indigenous populations of modern-day Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Cuba, Venezuela, and other nations in Central America, who have never recuperated from the invasion, extraction, and exploitation initiated by Columbus’s four trips across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain.

This type of legislation has become a fixture in the agendas of Indigenous rights movements because it allows Natives to shape their own narrative and encourages youth to engage in policymaking. “I think that’s very important,” says Tamez-Pochel of the work he is doing, “Youth are finally letting their voice be heard, and letting others know it is our time to make decisions.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias is a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias has invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. She has written and conducted research in several parts of the world; most recently Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she presented on disability awareness at the U.S. Consulate. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities. She considers her experiences a privilege, one that she hopes to use as a platform for spreading socio-political consciousness. In her spare time Michelle enjoys drinking pricey wines and watching old school zombie flicks.  

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