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Bloomington To Observe Indigeneous Peoples' Day Each October

The Bloomington City Council meets remotely, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.

Starting this fall, Bloomington officially will celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day the second Monday of each October. 

The Bloomington City Council unanimously passed the ordinance during its meeting Monday night.  And, with a 5-4 vote, the council also OK'd a resolution calling on other Illinois communities, as well as state and federal leaders, to end Columbus Day as a holiday, and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Besides the Columbus Day-related items, the council heard a preview about the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget from Bloomington finance director Scott Rathbun. This spring, staff will tweak the $245-million budget, and the council will finalize it in mid-April.

Ward 6 alderwoman Jenn Carrillo, who proposed the Indigenous Peoples’ Day items, said although Columbus Day hasn't been an official city holiday, it’s important to proactively step away from the 15th century explorer, Christopher Columbus.

“Given the symbolism that he evokes, and the history that has been kept out of sight about what Columbus did upon his arrival to this continent,” now is the time to set the record straight, she said.

Historians now hold a general view of Columbus as a brutal man who enslaved the indigenous people he encountered in the Bahamas, and that he played a role in their destruction. The federal observance of Columbus Day began in the late 1890s as a way to fight off anti-Italian sentiment facing those immigrants. It became a federal holiday in the 1930s.

Bloomington joins a growing trend -- over the past two decades more than 130 U.S. cities, and nearly 15 states have made similar moves. But the shift hasn’t come without opposition. Locally, while the entire council voted in favor of the ordinance, the resolution barely passed moments earlier -- on a tight vote.  And during a November council meeting, the issue also drew heated discussion.

“I know some people in the past have referenced that this resolution (and) ordinance is somehow cancel culture. But actually it’s correcting prior cancel culture,” said Ward 8 alderman Jeff Crabill.

“Cancel culture is Christopher Columbus’ genocidal treatment of indigenous people in the Americas; and Europeans continued cancel culture of native Americans, some of whom have lived in this area for centuries,” he said.

Crabill referenced five tribes that had once called the Bloomington area home -- the Kickapoo, Peoria, Kaskaskia, Muaamia and the Oceti Sakowin.

He called on his fellow council members to vote in favor of the resolution: “Let Columbus stay in history books, but let’s not celebrate him. Let’s be a leader as a community, and recognize Indigenous People’s Day, and ask others to join us.”

Carrillo and Crabill, along with Ward 1’s Jamie Mathy, Ward 4’s Julie Emig, and Ward 7’s Mollie Ward, voted in favor of the resolution that urges state and federal leaders to end Columbus Day, and adopt Indigenous Day.

Emig echoed Crabill's and Carrillo's calls for history to evolve, reflecting new knowledge. Emig, who noted her role as head of McLean County Museum of History, said she's a longtime advocate of history and civics.

"It is a fundamental form of cultural literacy," she said, noting history is about studying change over time.

Emig said Columbus' arrival launched an era of exploration and colonization of the New World, but the result was the exploitation of its indigenous peoples.

She said these different facets of history shouldn't be ignored, but that acknowledging them sometimes calls for conscious decisons to no longer honor certain individuals, such as Columbus whom she called a catalyst for suffering.

Emig praised the ordinance requirement for the Bloomington Humans Relations Commission to partner with community organizations.

That allows an educational approach to this issue, she said. "Not to deny, but merely to seek to understand -- while also just acknowledging that as our perceptions change over time, and as our understanding of history becomes more rich, that we acknowledge the past in a way that is responsive to how people experienced what they went through," she said.

Support for resolution split

While the ordinance won a unanimous vote, the 5-4 vote that immediately preceded that showed division.

Against the resolution were Ward 2's Donna Boelen, Ward 3's Mboka Mwilambwe, Ward 5's Joni Painter, and Ward 9's Kim Bray.

Painter was the most vocal in her opposition, saying maybe Bloomington should first get other central Illinois cities together, and make a joint statement.

But Carrillo contended Bloomington could lead by example and advocate for broader change. She mentioned that a legislative billchallenging the Columbus holiday is expected to be reintroduced this spring in Illinois' General Assembly. 

Painter also mentioned that she thought Carrillo should have first talked with local school districts about the resolution idea. (Bloomington's District 87 follows the state-issued holidays, including Columbus Day.) She added that some school districts observe Indigenous Peoples' Day one week, and Columbus Day another week.  But Carrillo said doing so was akin to celebrating an end to slavery in America, but then turning around and celebrating a Confederate hero. "It's completley antithetical," she said.

Painter also expressed concern with today's culture calling out Columbus for his violence, while turning a blind eye to violence from certain tribes: "There are a lot of indigenous people, or American Indians, that were cannibals," said Painter.

"I think the truth really needs to get out there, but the whole truth," she said. "I'm not going to slam one culture over another," said Painter. 

Mwilambwe said the issue of eliminating Columbus Day has brought up lots of differing opinions, including from constituents seeing the Italian explorer as a source of pride for their Italian heritage. He said before a resolution were to pass, he'd like to see the community be more educated on why indigeneous people have a problem with Columbus being honored.

"I'm not saying what is being proposed is not valid. But there also is some value in educating the community as a whole," prior to a vote, he said. Carrillo disagreed, referring to the council's decision earlier this year to create a Juneteenth holiday, which Mwilambwe proposed.

Not everyone in the community is educated about that holiday, celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, she said. Yet the city moved forward and created the June observance, she said.

Budget preview

Finance Director Rathbun told the council that preliminary numbers call for a $15 million increase, over fiscal 2021, bringing the fiscal 2022 budget to $245.3 million.

The bulk of the increase will be directed toward the $10 million O'Neil Park project to create an aquatic center and skate park.

In its general fund, Bloomington expects $109 million for FY22, down 1.1% from this year. That's partly because of an increase in required pension contributions, he said. It's also due to a $600,000 pandemic-related shortfall.

"That's from residual COVID impact going into next year," said Rathbun. When state mitigations closed bars, restaurants, and negatively affected hotel occupancy rates, Bloomington's tax revenue dipped.

After calculating COVID-related revenue decreases, the projected general fund balance still would be $24.3 million, he noted, adding staff's conservative approach during the pandemic is the reason the city hasn't seen a deeper impact.

One of the major reasons for the higher total FY22 budget is the capital projects being $13.3 million higher than fiscal 2021. The capital fund's total is $54.3 million.

He said the final budget adoption comes April 12, and that the numbers could change over the next few months. In February, the council will get an update on the process. The formal proposed budget comes to the council on March 8, and two weeks later a public hearing is scheduled.

City Manager Tim Gleason described Monday's pre-budget presentation as a kickoff to the spring building of the official fiscal 2022 budget.

He said as a way to help the community understand the complex process of developing the city budget, staff has produced a "Budget 101" video series. The first video should be on the city's website by Wednesday, he said. 

In other business, the council:

  • Learned of the $220,000 in federal Community Development Block Grants awarded to Bloomington to help with the negative impacts of COVID, about $95,000 has been awarded to 19 local businesses. Gleason told the council that on Feb. 8, he'll give an  update on direct aid provided to Bloomington residents.
  • Unanimously tabled a vote on rezoning a 6-acre section of Hawthorne Commercial Subdivision -- from commercial to mixed residence. The area is south of G.E. Road, and west of Towanda Barnes Road. The council opted to return the proposal to the Bloomington Planning Commission, citing confusion between developers and residents.
  • Approved spending about $177,000 on a wheel loader from Roland Machinery of Peoria.
  • Approved an amendment to a multi-year planning study of the Division Street and Enterprise Pump Station. The study is a partnership between the city and Donohue & Associates. 
  • Approved a three-year agreement with Republic Services, to collect household trash at Lake Bloomington homes, at  a monthly rate of $12.50 per residence; and extended for two months an agreement with the company at the current rate of $9.43 per home.
  • Approved an amended preliminary plan for the Harvest Pointe Subdivision. The 14-acre area sits north of G.E. Road and Illinois 9, and east of Towanda Barnes Road.

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Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.