Menu

River Forest trustees balk at native lands statement

New board member 'thrilled' to have sparked discussion

September 3rd, 2019 2:33 PM

Erika Bachner

By ROBERT J. LIFKA

Contributing Reporter

Although her request that an acknowledgement of land statement be read at the beginning of each River Forest Village Board meeting was not supported by her fellow elected officials, Trustee Erika Bachner said she "very much appreciated" the discussion at the Aug. 26 village board meeting.

"As we begin, we are mindful that we hold these meetings on land that was once and still is inhabited by indigenous people including the Ojibwa, Chippewa, Menominee, Potawatomi nations and more," the proposed statement reads. "We will remember our nation's history and honor the native people as stewards of this land that was colonized, and that River Forest continues to be a place many people from diverse backgrounds live and gather."

Bachner called it "a formal statement recognizing and respecting indigenous people as traditional stewards of this land. I think that's an important thing as we recognize that we are stewards as well and consider the historical context of what our history is and that it does include indigenous people."

"This is something I've been seeing gain traction and being used more broadly in settings and conferences and in groups that gather together in public spaces," Bachner added.

 Although several trustees expressed support for the concept of acknowledging indigenous people as being stewards of the land, none endorsed reading the statement at the beginning of each village board meeting.

Trustee Tom Cargie referred to "opening a can of worms" and Trustee Bob O'Connell called the statement a "slippery slope." Both also expressed concerns about offending residents.

 "What if somebody else comes along with a similar grievance?" Cargie asked. "This does offend people."

Trustee Respicio Vazquez asked about other minorities.

"If we're going to be inclusive, we shouldn't limit the statement to Native Americans," he said.

Vazquez and Trustee Kathleen Brennan said they did not have an issue with the statement itself with Brennan agreeing she felt it was a slippery slope.

 Trustee Patty Henek addressed the broader issue, saying her research of this issue had led to a mix of responses.

"I appreciate the need to move forward with this conversation," she said. "I wonder if there are other ways of addressing it, more effective ways of doing that. 

"There are so many nuances. I wonder if people will understand. I'd hate to have the message I know you are bringing get lost."

Cargie and Village President Cathy Adduci asked whether such a statement is appropriate for a village board meeting.

Adduci suggested putting up a plaque where Native Americans lived similar to what is done with historic homes. Henek agreed and suggested putting up multiple plaques.

Bachner discounted implications that she is acting on a political motive.

"From my standpoint, I don't see a political stance," Bachner said. "For me it is a way to be mindful of what our position is in our historic reference."

She compared reading such a statement to saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

"The Pledge of Allegiance is something we do to acknowledge our connection to the government," she said. "I feel this is a mindful way to acknowledge our connection to the land and to the indigenous people who were here." 

Bachner acknowledged that she is not aware of any other municipalities beginning board meetings with such statements, but said she has seen an increase in the practice at meetings and conferences she has attended.

Although the practice is not popular in the United States, in countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada and among tribal nations in the U.S., it is commonplace to open events and gatherings by acknowledging the traditional indigenous inhabitants of that land, according to the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.

Although the statement will not be read at the beginning of each board meeting as she had requested, Bachner said she will read it herself during the trustee comment portion of each meeting and at other opportunities.

She also said was pleased with the discussion, even though her recommendation was not supported.

"It was a great outcome," she said.

In particular, she said she was "thrilled" with Adduci's suggestion regarding putting up a plaque, calling it "an amazing step."

Bachner said after she read the statement at the beginning of the Complete Count Committee meeting she chaired Aug. 27, she received an email message of support from a resident.

"That makes me hopeful," she said.

She said she also plans to reach out to the indigenous tribes and "help find ways to educate the community" about them.

"Beginning the conversation in River Forest was the right thing to do," Bachner said.