River Forest trustees balk at native lands statement

New board member 'thrilled' to have sparked discussion

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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.

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Reader Comments

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Bruce Kline  

Posted: September 10th, 2019 11:10 PM

I beg to disagree Ramona. Mr. Kuenster's story is not "borderline pathetic." On the contrary, IMO, it is 100% fully certified pathetic.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 10th, 2019 10:09 PM

Mr. Kuenster, Your story is borderline pathetic. As an immigrant myself who works with undocumented people everyday, rest assured I do not believe your notion for a second that Jose chose death over interaction with the River Forest Fire Department. They would have met his immediate health needs, been sent to the hospital in an ambulance and cared for there until he was well enough to leave. There would have been zero interaction with Jose and law enforcement. Paramedics don't ask for citizenship credentials when caring for a patient. The hospital would have figured it out, but hospitals don't have a direct line to ICE nor is it protocol for them to contact law enforcement. If he wasn't aware of this, then shame on you Mr. Kuenster. You can blame whomever you like. Jose ultimately died in YOUR home that was unsafe and if he died because he was intimidated by the outside world, then shame on you Mr. Kuenster for being a ridiculously poor steward for someone who sorely needed your help. There aren't enough Hail Mary's or Our Father's in the world to help your soul.

Gregg Kuenster from River Forest  

Posted: September 10th, 2019 1:12 PM

Jose died hiding inside the locked rear door of our home. Jose locked the door immediately before the firemen arrived. We believe that Jose was hiding because of his previous encounters with some members of the government who assaulted him and told him to, "Go back to where you came from." Jose was short and dark-complected, an undocumented immigrant without proper identification. He did not speak or understand English, but he taught us his limited Spanish. Jose was a free spirit. He slept in various locations: sometimes with friends like us, sometimes with family members in Chicago, and sometimes in the street. Jose would stay in our basement. We are a family with young children. We did not invite Jose into our family sleeping area. Please forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: September 10th, 2019 8:21 AM

Why was Elpido Flores allowed to sleep in the basement of this home and not on the upper floors with Kuenster?

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 9th, 2019 3:43 PM

Mr. Kuenster. I would like to know how you manage to only pay $800 per year in property taxes without any exemptions? Why is the tax appeal applicant Ethel Wittenbreer? She's been dead since 1996. Something isn't adding up! Technically, you were guilty of having a basement apartment without the proper permits and being out of code and as a result, a man died.

Gregg Kuenster from River Forest  

Posted: September 9th, 2019 3:22 PM

RF has Zero tolerance for immigrants. "Please move out of Town" is the message we have received repeatedly. My middle school children have been attacked and bullied because they are mixed race and exceptionally students. Different RF Board members have called us asking why we don't move to Hinsdale or Naperville.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: September 9th, 2019 11:19 AM

Gregg, I don't know the details about his sad story of what's going on in RF but this is terrible to read about you having to fight a 55.5 M law suit over offering a person a place to lay his head at night to be safe. I know someone else that did that and the person was very grateful because the alternative was being homeless. I met this person years ago and he told me about his situation and how they had to keep it hidden from the Village of Oak Park. Isn't there some kind of a Good Samaritan argument for a situations like that? Or is it that society thinks no good deed should go unpunished. You truly wonder about life sometimes. Ramona, one thing I like about your posts is that you always cite facts and don't just offer opinions based on sentiment.

Gregg Kuenster from River Forest  

Posted: September 8th, 2019 1:20 AM

An indigenous man died next to RF Village Hall March 26, 2017. Elpidio (Jose) Flores was a Mixtec Indian. Jose grew up in a Mexican adobe speaking Mixtec. It has cadence, volume and tonal swings uncommon in most Western languages. I heard him speaking to his parents on the phone. Mixtec sounds similar to Chinese. I know many Chinese speakers. Jose was very short and very dark. Jose said he was detained by the police on a regular basis. Jose hid from the authorities because he was afraid of them. He was afraid of being beaten, robbed and deported. If you are indigenous and undocumented, you are afraid of being beaten, robbed and deported. Jose (Elpidio) Flores died in our River Forest home at 516 Park Avenue from smoke inhalation. Jose was hiding inside our locked rear door. It appears that Jose had locked himself inside the building immediately before the firemen arrived. It is our belief that Jose was afraid of being deported for accidentally starting a fire, and that he thereby unintentionally committed suicide rather than be deported. Six months after the fire, my wife and our children, in a trust?"were sued by River Forest for Jose's death. The 55.5 million dollar lawsuit is a claim of a blanket of building code violations because we allowed Jose to sleep in our home and he died. Our home is clean, orderly and our pride and joy. On May 22, my wife and I appeared before the Village Board and pleaded with them to settle its claims for $50,000. The Village Board declined to accept the $50,000. Technically, we are guilty of allowing Jose to sleep in our basement. Prospective lawyers were reluctant to represent us, and said we would be looking at additional legal fees of $100,000, which seemed likely since Keystone Montessori School incurred double those legal fees in their zoning conflict with River Forest last year. To pay for such legal fees, several attorneys suggested that we place a lean on our home.

Robert Zeh  

Posted: September 7th, 2019 12:39 PM

At first, I thought this was nothing more than virtue signaling, because I don't see how it will help anyone. Is there anyone in River Forest who thinks River Forest was unoccupied before European settlement? But it got me thinking about the various peoples that lived here successfully for thousands of years. In some ways they were better stewards. For example, I suspect Thatcher Woods had a lot less undergrowth and was more pleasant when the occasional forest fire was allowed. And our predecessors knew how to deal with deer. They ate them.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 6th, 2019 11:19 PM

@ James. The point to my previous post was to demonstrate that Native Americans were not as "peaceful" as most would want us to believe. History is being rewritten as if Europeans were the only peoples capable of any violence or brutality. Couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, most Native Americans died of disease brought by Europeans, meaning it was unintentional. Were they really here first? Scientist have found bones 7,000 years old in Florida. When they ran the DNA, it came back French. Other remains have been found in Montana that are over 12,000 years old and the DNA came back as Germanic. Of course, you wouldn't read any of this or my previous post in any history book since it doesn't fit neatly into the new narrative shoved down our throats.

James Kebinger  

Posted: September 6th, 2019 8:52 PM

I don't understand the point of Ramona's "history lesson"? Whatever the Native Americans were up to, I think we can agree they were here first. I hope while we're on the subject of history, we can also agree that their population was decimated by 50-90% by old-world diseases before the other cruelties of the European settlers started piling up.

Gregg Kuenster  

Posted: September 6th, 2019 5:04 PM

All River Forest employees are white. The Board does not want to talk about the lack of minorities. My Great grandfather went hunting with Indians in Iowa and Wisconsin. They mostly died from scarlet fever.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 5th, 2019 10:05 PM

Here is a bit of history for you Ms. Bachner: " Intertribal warfare was intense throughout the Great Plains during the 1700s and 1800s, and archeological data indicate that warfare was present prior to this time. Human skeletons from as early as the Woodland Period (250 B.C. to A.D. 900) show occasional marks of violence, but conflict intensified during and after the thirteenth century, by which time farmers were well established in the Plains. After 1250, villages were often destroyed by fire, and human skeletons regularly show marks of violence, scalping, and other mutilations. Warfare was most intense along the Missouri River in the present-day Dakotas, where ancestors of the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras were at war with each other, and towns inhabited by as many as 1,000 people were often fortified with ditch and palisade defenses. Excavations at the Crow Creek site, an ancestral Arikara town dated to 1325, revealed the bodies of 486 people?"men, women, and children, essentially the town's entire population?"in a mass grave. These individuals had been scalped and dismembered, and their bones showed clear evidence of severe malnutrition, suggesting that violence resulted from competition for food, probably due to local overpopulation and climatic deterioration. Violence among farmers continued from the 1500s through the late 1800s."

Gregg Kuenster from River Forest  

Posted: September 4th, 2019 5:10 PM

We Got Your Plaque Right Here! At the Erica Bachner swearing In, Erica, Vazquez and my children were the only non Caucasian's out of 150 in attendance. We Got Your Plaque Right Here! Good luck Erica. Hang in there.

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