Photo by Mateo Zapata

Chicago Native American Organizer on the Intersection of Black Lives Matter and Decolonization

“Decolonization is not only the return of land, but it’s also the abolishment of slavery”

Janie Pochel is co-founder and lead advisor of Chi-Nations Youth Council, which helped organize the July 17 solidarity rally that set the stage for the City’s removal of three Christopher Columbus statues in Grant Park, Little Italy, and South Chicago. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The conversation about the fake history surrounding Christopher Columbus goes back a long time, at the very least to the 1960s, and there’s also a rich history in Latin America of Indigenous communities toppling monuments of colonizers. So what exactly created the momentum for the removal of Columbus in various cities like Minneapolis and Chicago. And is there any connection to Black Lives Matter?

Yeah, I think it’s directly correlated with Black Lives Matter. I know at least in decolonial work I do, decolonization is not only the return of land, but it’s also the abolishment of slavery. Because those things are what colonized our lands. So if we’re gonna work on getting our land back, we have to also abolish slavery at the same time. And as we know, as American history, slavery never ended—they just switched it over to the prison industrial complex. 

So, we’ve been doing uprisings, like Idle No More was one, Standing Rock was another one. And when those opportunities come about, we’re gonna jump on them. So when we seen everybody getting, you know, “woke,” they started saying, “Oh, you can’t have justice on stolen land,” but you’re not even bringing us into these conversations. When we were talking [among ourselves] about how Natives are going to support this movement, we didn’t want it to be like the oppression olympics. We wanted it to be intentional, to build an actual coalition between Native and Black communities.

Tell me about Chi-Nations Youth Council. What are the programs or campaigns that people should know about?

The Not Your Mascot work is probably what we’ve been doing the longest. We also wanted our youth to get connected to place, so it started with just teaching them about different plants, and then as we moved on over the years, we started talking about getting physical land, which is how we got the First Nations Garden eventually. It took like two and a half years trying to get access to the garden and convincing the city that we can steward it and take care of it properly. The city didn’t open it up to us to buy, because they wanted to turn it into workforce housing. The city said they’ll give access to a garden somewhere in the city, but that it would be under a lease with NeighborSpace, which is an organization that buys up city land to create open green space. So right now NeighborSpace has the lease for the land, but it’s still city owned. NeighborSpace is really hands off, they let the neighborhood or the people who are taking care of it actually make the calls and to do whatever we want, almost. 

Are members part of a nation or tribe or are you open to anyone who identifies as Native American?

We don’t really card anybody; It’s mostly self-identified Natives. Everybody in our group right now is attached to a federal tribe in some way as a dependent or a member, but in the past we’ve had it open. Like two of the Hawaiian kids don’t feel comfortable being part of the group, but the kids accept them as part of the group. Hawaiians aren’t federally recognized. One of the first members was actually from somewhere in Central America, they were Native from there and they didn’t have any recognition. Most of the kids are recognized in some way, but we are open to any youth that identifies as Native and wants to be part of the group. Ages thirteen to twenty-four is what we say, but we have younger, ten- to thirteen-year-olds who come to the programs and are not really members of the group, but are going to be members of the group.

On July 17, you helped organize the Black Indigenous Solidarity Rally at Buckingham Fountain, and the promotional materials say that it was organized by fifteen or so organizations. How did you manage to bring such a diverse range of people together?

It was just mostly reaching out to our network. Ever since June 30, our members have been out in the streets with Black Lives Matter. A lot of the people that actually joined on, like GoodKids MadCity, we’ve built relationships with them over the years and during the protest. And when we started coming up with this idea, we just kind of put it out to the people who showed up initially, and wasjust like, “Do you know people from…?”. We had someone from Black Lives Matter there, but we didn’t have BYP100, [who] we brought in, and as more people signed on, then we started getting requests from other groups.

Some people were surprised by the attempt to remove the statue. It seemed like not everyone was aware that people were going to bring it down the same day. Do you know why there was confusion?

People just don’t expect that kind of action from Chicago, just because we’ve been so tame and peaceful for so long, that as soon as somebody got inspired to fight back against the cops, it was like a contagious courage went through the crowd. I know that some people were confused, but… I think the people that were keeping up with what’s going on around the country, as soon as we got to the Columbus statue, I think that’s when [their] minds started going like, “We’re gonna take this down.” So after the rally, we made it clear that we don’t police people’s protests and that we’re going to protect each other. So I think people got all inspired by seeing the solidarity, they just decided, you know, ‘let’s try to take these statues down,’ and eventually they did come down. So even if it wasn’t successful then, you know, it ended up coming down in the end. And we got to laugh in John-FOP-whats-his-name’s face, while it was going down.

A lot of people don’t know much about Native American history in Chicago or Illinois, but if you could tell people something that they need to know about their history, what would you tell them?

Definitely the people of the Three Fires: Odawa, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, which are like the colonial names. Then Miami, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Meskwaki, Sauk… so Chicago’s been a city for a long time and there’s actually, I can go over 100 different nations that claim it as part of their ancestral territory, but I think those are the most prominent in a city that still has tribal members. They’re not really a big concentration. Like Albany Park has a lot of Natives; in West Rogers Park there’s a group of Natives, and I think on the South Side there’s a pretty big [community]. The 70s or 80s is when our neighborhood got broken up, and since then we’ve just kind of been all over. But through mutual aid, we noticed a lot of Native people just live on the outskirts of the city. Way on the North Side, way on the West Side, or way on the South Side. There’s not really a lot in the middle.

The name of the event was “Decolonize…” and I’m assuming this is the Indigenous name for Chicago and I don’t know how to pronounce it and I don’t want to mess it up. Do you know how to pronounce it?

It’s Zhigaagoong (she-gah-goo). It’s actually not the official Ojibwa word. We’re Soto Ojibwa, which is a different dialect, so that’s what we would call it. 

I noticed that CPD, the mayor, and also Trump weaponized this event to make a statement about Black Lives Matter and GoodKids MadCity, even though there were many players, including Indigenous and brown people. How were you reacting to the way the media and politicians were using this event to advance their own agendas?

I seen it as a way for them to use their power to put everyone in their place. And since they don’t really know, most people don’t really know a lot about Natives and how to come at us, that they wanted to punish us in some way, so they chose to punish people on the South and West Sides, which are predominantly Black. And that’s just part of America, colonialism, trying to keep everybody in their place. But to us, we see it as scapegoating and definitely targeted based on race. And even when they were taking the statue down [days later], it kinda felt like they were trying to put something in between [it and] the solidarity that was going on because that might’ve been seen as a Native win, and they attacked Black people at the same time. But we seen it as a win for both Black people and Native people because of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which not a lot of people [associate] that with Columbus.

After the Grant Park statue came down on July 24, they took down the one in Little Italy and, a few days ago, the one in South Chicago came down too. Do you see those last two removals as the direct result of your work?

Yeah, the solidarity of the people of Chicagonot just Black and Indigenous folksscared them, and they didn’t want to have places that we could target with a large group again. So as soon as the Facebook event went up for the last one, they took [the statue] down in the next couple of days after that. So they’re watching what everybody’s doing and they’re scared of what we can do if we have this solidarity.

You mentioned that this was the beginning of coalition building among different groups. Do you look at other places in history or other cities’ efforts as inspiration?

Growing up in Chicago, I just grew up with Fred Hampton a lot. I think he was the last one in Chicago who was trying to really build, through the Rainbow Coalition, a meaningful relationship with Native people, so just growing up hearing those stories. Then recently, the solidarity that happened in Minneapolis, that was a Native neighborhood where everything went down [in response to George Floyd’s murder]. We were able to recognize Native people, we were able to hear them by watching the live videos. There was a condo that got burned down and that was a Native neighborhood right there. So it was our Native friends in Minneapolis who were going live and showing us that this was happening right outside the door. Like the MIGIZI Center, some of the [Chi-Nations Youth] know people who go there. Just watching that stuff unfold live, and then hearing what they were saying, that this sacrifice is worth it for what’s coming up next, nobody was trying to blame anybody, it was almost immediate solidarity. 

I noticed Natives were much more visible in Minneapolis. What is the Native American population in Chicago?

There’s a lot of Native nations in Minneapolis, that’s one of the biggest cities populated with Natives. In Chicago, it’s anywhere between thirty and sixty-five thousand. In 2017, the last number I heard was like thirty-five thousand, but the Census said eighty thousand in the area, and sixty-five thousand in Chicago.

The effort to get rid of Columbus Day came out of Chi-Nations Youth?

We were approached with it by non-Native folks. I mean, my entire life we’ve been trying to abolish Columbus Day. I think replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day is something new and not really something that everyone wants as much as we want Columbus Day to be abolished. We wrote the ordinance for the abolishment of Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day, but it wasn’t something that we sat around and talked about and were very intentional with, it was something that came to us just because a lot of work had already been done by non-Native folks collecting petitions and stuff like that. So we just kind of jumped on board with it. 

Have you had the support of your local alderman or other leadership?

Yeah, we’re right on the border of the 33rd and 35th ward. Carlos [Ramírez-Rosa] and Rossana [Rodríguez Sánchez] have been supportive of basically everything that we’ve asked of them, to their best of their ability. I was on WTTW with [38th Ward alderman Nicholas] Sposato and he seemed like he was not open to it, but he was at least cordial and we were able to have a discussion. But he doesn’t think [Columbus] supports white supremacy, so at a base level I don’t think we could’ve agreed on anything.

I think it helps that both Rossana and Carlos have a Puerto Rican background so they have some understanding of colonization.

Yeah, Rossana was on board 100 percent. She came to meetings. We were nervous on how much we could say at the City, and Rossana gave us free rein to say whatever we wanted and really call it out as white supremacy, which we were nervous to do because there’s a lot of white aldermen. But Rossana was like, “Call it what it is,” you know? 

Some people are saying the Columbus statue is just “symbolic”. But what are your next steps?

We definitely wanna come at the Blackhawks logo. We don’t really know how to do it yet, we’re working with some people, but trying to get people to recognize the Blackhawks logo as a stereotype, and since Chicago Public Schools already have a dress code that prohibits racism, that that symbol can be put in there because there’s a lot of research that shows that it does depress our kids. We want to go at Chicago Public Schools. And W. Rockwell Wirtz, the owner of the Blackhawks, is the board of trustees chairman at the Field Museum, and the Field Museum is like the main educator of Chicago on Native people and they’ve done a disservice this whole time, that we fear that they’re just gonna continue doing that…. There are people in there who are intentional and want to work with the community, but I don’t think there’s enough of them to actually do something meaningful for the Native community and that will truly educate the public about us.

You mentioned that a Native person had their hand broken, is she okay? Who is she?

Her name is Corinne. She’s recovering. She came to the garden last week. We have a Native-only day at the garden where we get together and barbecue. She came there, she’s doing fine. She’s in high spirits because the statues ended up coming down, and we didn’t really want to trigger her or ask her too many questions about what happened. She was hanging on to her bike and they hit her hand. She’s actually Simon Pokagon’s great-granddaughter. He’s the one who sued the city for the land that we were protesting on, east of Michigan Avenue, in the 1800s.

Anything else you want to add?

A lot of people are saying that this is something new, but even at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Native people were outside protesting the idea that Columbus founded us, so just that this isn’t a new thing because people are woke all of a sudden. It’s just new that people are joining us in getting rid of these symbols.

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Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief of the South Side Weekly. She last wrote about a Black/brown truce in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests.

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