Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl says her diplomatic skills failed her at a meeting Monday afternoon between supporters and opponents of celebrating Indigenous People’s Day rather than Columbus Day in Evanston next Oct. 10.

The mayor says she was unable to find common ground between representatives of the Evanston-based Mitchell Museum of the American Indian — who persuaded her to agree to issue a proclamation designating that day Indigenous People’s Day in Evanston — and fans of Columbus who said Indigenous People’s Day would be a fine idea — as long as it wasn’t on Columbus Day.

Kathleen McDonald, the museum’s executive director, says the idea of celebrating native peoples, rather than the man whose voyage opened the hemisphere to European settlement, got its start in 1977 in Equador and has spread to a number of American cities ranging from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Seattle, Washington

Richard O’Dwyer, deputy grand knight of the Evanston chapter of the Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, says the mayor created the controversy herself by deciding to issue the Indigenous People’s Day proclamation before getting any feedback from anybody else.

“All they have to do is buttonhole her at Whole Foods, and if I want to get it changed back I have to launch a political campaign,” O’Dwyer added.

The Knights and the Native American groups have radically different perceptions of the explorer’s role in history, with publications of the Knights claiming Columbus treated native peoples with respect, while Indian sources argue he enslaved native peoples and was responsible for atrocities.

Louis Rago, president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation of Chicago, also was at the meeting and says his group offered to help the museum celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, if they’d just move it to another day.

“I don’t understand why it has to fall on Columbus Day,” said Rago, whose group is part of a national effort by Italian American organizations to Save Columbus Day. “There are so many other days,” he added.

“But there’s a group of people that feel that whatever good came from Columbus landing on the shores of the Americas, all the evil that’s happened since 1492 is his fault,” Rago added. “There’s no way you can convey anything to people who have that mindset.”

“I mean, George Washington had slaves,” Rago added. “None of the founders of our country would be canonized a saint of the Catholic Church, but we have to admit that their deeds were exceptional.”

And, Rago suggested, it’s unfair for Evanston to try to shove Columbus aside, when it is named after John Evans, who is widely accused of complicity in a massacre of Indians when he was governor of the Colorado Territory in 1864, the year after Evanston was founded.

O’Dwyer says he’ll have to talk to other K of C members before deciding whether to take any further action on the issue.

While Columbus Day is a federal holiday, it has not been formally celebrated in Evanston in recent years. City offices and schools are open that day, although garbage pickups are delayed.

Related story

Kicking Columbus to the curb (4/28/16)

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Mayor Tisdahl ………. not
    Mayor Tisdahl ………. not a big surprise that she screwed up another thing.

    1. East Meets West
      For better or worse, Columbus landing in the New World was the cause of significant changes for cultures worldwide, not to mention the environment. This new phase in world history has been referred to as the Homogenocene and the Anthropocene, and the changes introduced to the Americas, as well as to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Colombus’s encounter with the Americas was not the first by Europeans, but it was the one that stuck. Charles C. Mann’s books “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” and “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” are good introductions to how much was here in the Americas before Columbus and how much the world as a whole – not just the Americas, and not just its indigenous peoples – has been affected by that encounter. The good and the bad of Columbus’s “discovery” of America are worth exploring, i.e., what that meant and means for indigenous peoples, what it means for those of Italian and European descent, what it meant for the Africans who made up 4/5 of all immigrants to the New World, not to mention the changes it brought about in trade, the environment and biodiversity, the foods we eat, the plants in our yards, and our understanding of our planet and its peoples. I don’t understand why the Columbus Encounter can’t be remembered in its complex fullness, good and bad for all involved, on Columbus Day.

      It should also be remembered that whatever the day has to say about Columbus, the reason for its adoption and support had very much to do with a group of immigrants fighting against their discrimination at the hands of ‘real Americans’. The Italians adopted Columbus Day as they began their fight for acceptance in America in the face of enormous discrimination. That’s as much a part of this holiday’s history and meaning in the U.S. as anything to do with 1492, colonialism, and the mistreatment of Native Americans.

      1. Founding of the Americas
        Let’s face it, the Americas were founded by people who committed atrocities against human beings whom they considered to be inferior. The repercussions are still with us.

  2. Happy to be here

    I ,for one, am happy that Columbus settled the 'new world' and opened up the frontier for European settlement. If he hadn't I wouldn't be here today enjoying everything this great country has to offer. Come to think of it, neither would all of the people finding it hard to move beyond historical atrocities or cultural appropriation.

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