On May 22 the state legislature named September 1 American Indian Day. In the past, similar proclamations have honored Native Americans with special days or months, but this one is different–it declares a state holiday that will be listed on Illinois’ official calendar from this year forward. The new holiday will be initiated without much fanfare: the river won’t be dyed red, city services will continue uninterrupted, and the mail will be delivered (as much as usual).

Getting the holiday was the mission of Cleatus Lee Murdaugh, a 70-year-old south-sider who wasn’t sure of his Cherokee heritage until four years ago. He now identifies himself as “Cherokee Lee,” and he’s proud of it.

Born in 1931, Murdaugh grew up in Blytheville, Arkansas, with no knowledge of his ancestry. When kids played cowboys and Indians, he recalls, nobody wanted to be an Indian. One day his mother saw him playing the cowboy’s role. She took him aside and said she was Scotch, Irish, and Cherokee, which meant he was an Indian too.

They didn’t discuss it further. Murdaugh’s father, a sharecropper, wasn’t Indian and the family didn’t belong to a tribe. They had no connection to other Indians, not in Arkansas or Chicago, where the family moved in 1942. They saw themselves as white, not Native American. “Back then we were made to feel ashamed of it,” Murdaugh says.

Hard times hit in 1946, when Murdaugh’s father died, leaving a widow and eight children. Murdaugh’s mother found work at a pie factory near the family’s Bridgeport apartment. She earned 55 cents an hour, and Cleatus, her second oldest child, dropped out of eighth grade to watch his brothers and sisters. Two years later he started working outside the home, first for a fence company, then as a car hiker, dockworker, plasterer, cabdriver, and receiving clerk. “I worked at different jobs, trying to find something that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.”

He found it in the late 50s, when he was transferred from the receiving department to work on a punch press. “This was for me,” he says. Already supporting a wife and four children, he began an apprenticeship in tool-and-die making in the early 60s, and for a few years in the 70s he ran his own shop. He eventually took a job at Parisian Novelties, where he put in 25 years.

After retiring in 1997, he began to wonder about the story his mother had told him. Her father, James Byers, was supposed to be a Cherokee, but how could he prove it? It turned out the records he needed were stored in the National Archives bureau on South Pulaski, just a couple of miles away from his home in Gage Park. Murdaugh searched through miles of microfilm four hours a day, every day, for ten months before finding proof that his grandfather had been three-quarters Cherokee. He decided to apply for membership in a tribe, but he had a hard time finding one that was accepting new members. After six attempts, the Tennessee River Band of Chickamauga Cherokees accepted his application. “I was granted the honor of being a citizen of the Southern Cherokee Nation.” He signed up the rest of his family as well–his wife, four children, and eight grandchildren.

Then last November he signed an on-line petition calling for a national day of recognition for Native Americans. It seemed like a great idea. Every other group seemed to have a holiday. He’d check the petition from time to time, see that the number of signatures had grown, and wonder whether anything would ever be done. Finally he called his state representative, Daniel Burke, and asked if a Native American holiday could be passed in Illinois. “Well,” Murdaugh recalls, “he said yes.

“He told me to copy the signatures off of the petition and write a resolution in my own words saying why we should have this holiday. I did that. Now when I signed, I signed in at number 141. When I copied it, there were 13,582 signatures on there.”

Last March 5 he gave both the signatures and his resolution to Burke. He wrote about the Trail of Tears and noted that 17 states do not recognize Columbus Day. “Columbus did not discover America,” Murdaugh asserted. “He discovered the Indian.”

Burke invited him to Springfield, and on May 2 Murdaugh, Burke, and Matthew Beaudet, president of the Illinois Native American Bar Association, all made speeches to a committee that voted to bring the resolution before the house.

The measure was passed, but winning the day of recognition turned out to be just a first step. “Daniel Burke said that letting people know is entirely up to you.” So Murdaugh’s become a one-man public relations firm. “I’ve been passing out copies of the state resolution to TV stations, to newspapers, and at powwows.” He took a copy to the American Indian Center in Uptown, where executive director Joe Podlasek put it on display in the front hall.

The only Chicago celebration of American Indian Day will be at the American Indian Center, 1630 W. Wilson. From ten to five on Saturday there’ll be drumming, dancing, storytelling, arts and crafts demonstrations, and American Indian food. Earlier this week Podlasek was trying to figure out how he was going to pay for it. He’d just been told that a promised state grant wasn’t coming after all.

“We’ll still hold an event, and it will still be free to the public,” he said. “It will be done by our community, voluntarily.” If celebrants want to make donations, he added, they won’t be turned down.

The American Indian Center has made do without funding before. Though its building houses a small museum and several community programs, the center has been run, at times, almost entirely on proceeds from bingo. Podlasek recently learned it will be one of nine American Indian communities (and the only urban Indian community) spotlighted in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which is scheduled to open in Washington, D.C., in 2004. He notes the 2000 census, which included the category of Native American for the first time, showed 30,000 Indians in Chicago and 73,000 statewide.

Half-Chippewa, half-Polish, Podlasek, 39, is one of the center’s native sons–he participated in a job training program there 12 years ago, and worked as a computer programmer at the Chicago Historical Society before taking the center’s executive post last March. Since then he’s been collecting promises from state and corporate donors, some of which have been kept. He’s got a roomful of computers from AT&T and a pledge of Internet access–as soon as that access is available in Uptown. Carrier Corporation has promised to donate an air-conditioning system, which is contingent on his getting funds to install it.

In the meantime, the center’s roof is leaking and the van died three weeks ago. Podlasek hopes American Indian Day will raise the center’s profile, but he’s not sure whether much will come of the holiday. “I don’t really know how much effort the state is going to put into it.”

Murdaugh says there are plans for an essay contest in the public schools, but the details remain to be worked out. Only a handful of other states honor Native Americans with a special day–he mentions Oklahoma, New York, California, and South Dakota, which changed Columbus Day to Native American Day a couple of years ago.

For Murdaugh, the months spent promoting the holiday have also been a homecoming. He may be new to the American Indian community, but, resolution in hand, he’s been given a hero’s welcome: a dance in his honor was held in a Lutheran church, and author E. Donald Two-Rivers has written a short story about his life. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” says the man now known as Cherokee Lee.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.