Decolonizing Chicago’s City Seal
CHICAGO’S CITY SEAL LEGITIMIZES SETTLER COLONIALISM
At Washington St. Lobby, Chicago Cultural Center
Chicago's City Seal, on the floor of the Washington St. lobby, poses settler colonialism as peacefully replacing an Indigenous world. The process by which Indigenous land became a space of capital extraction, however, was a violent one. At the signing of the first Treaty of Chicago in 1821, Potawatomi chief Metea spoke to assembled representatives of the U.S. government and, pointing to the violence of colonial land seizure, said:
You are acquainted with this piece of land—the country we live in. Shall we give it up? Take notice, it is a small piece of land, and if we give it away, what will become of us? The Great Spirit, who has provided it for our use, allows us to keep it, to bring up our young men and support our families ... If we had more land, you should get more; but our land has been wasting away ever since the white people became our neighbors, and we have now hardly enough left to cover the bones of our tribe...
The design of the City Seal is defined in the Chicago Municipal Code in section MCC 1-8-010; this means that Chicago’s Municipal Code authorizes settler colonialism. To reveal and remember settler colonial dispossession and violence, as we begin to do here, is by contrast to solicit a decolonizing future.
The City Seal includes a depiction of an infant floating over a shell, itself floating over the 19th century Seal of the United States. The infant brings up associations of youth, innocence, and purity to these representations of the colonial nation and the colonial city. These cultural associations do political work: they attempt to replace the violence of settler colonial history, a violence that is nevertheless embedded in the seal’s other elements.
The name of the city references a French rendering of the Indigenous Miami-Illinois word for a type of wild onion, the shikaakwa, known in English as ramps. The word was later turned into Checagou or Chicagou, also referencing a type of garlic that grew in the forests of the region. And yet, this indigenous plant is not depicted in the seal—what we see instead is a sheaf of wheat, a crop Indigenous to the Fertile Crescent and brought to North America by British colonialism. This more lucrative crop took over the plains surrounding Chicago as the land was seized from Native Americans and transformed into a site of extraction.
Chicago’s Motto ("Urbs in Horto"/"City in a Garden") is prominently featured on the City Seal. The invocation of a “garden” as the site on which the city was founded and developed is one way in which settler colonialism forgets its origins in land theft and frontier violence. In fact, the city of Chicago, like every other city in the Americas, sits on Indigenous land that was seized by coerced treaties and violence by the United States government.
The history of land seizures that yielded the territory on which the city of Chicago developed includes a series of coerced treaties between the United States government and Native Americans; these treaties granted the U.S. increasingly larger swaths of Indigenous territory and yielded increasingly larger dispossessions of Indigenous people. The signing of the last of these treaties—the 1833 Treaty of Chicago—was taken by the United States government as a surrender of Native American claims to Chicago and its surroundings.
As inscribed on the seal, the city of Chicago was incorporated in 1837. By marking this year as the city’s point of departure, however, the seal erases the prior history of this land and its people.
A two-masted schooner in full sail is depicted as arriving to the city and its supposed garden, but where is it arriving from, what does it carry, and for what purpose? The schooner, a cargo ship, comes to Chicago and takes extracted resources—like the sheath of grain it is headed towards—marking the city’s primary purpose: securing the extraction of resources from the agricultural “garden” and taking them to markets elsewhere for sale.
While there are multiple erasures of Indigenous presence within the Chicago Cultural Center, there is only one representation of Indigeneity, here on the City Seal. According to Chicago’s Municipal Code, the Seal includes a depiction of “an Indian chief with a bow and arrow proper.” With these weapons, the Seal transfers the violence of settler colonialism to the only Indigenous figure present in the building.
Ironically, this presence, and the very Seal itself, are slowly being erased by the solicitous maintenance of the building. The Seal is cleaned several times a day when the lobby floor is cleaned: a caress that is gradually wearing the brass Seal away. The only objects allowed to touch the sole representation of an Indigenous person in this building are an eroding floor cleaner and the soles of the many shoes that step on it throughout the day. These small aggressions remind us of the larger pattern of settler colonialism, which masks the violence of erasure under the guise of “civilization.”