More than 30 people gathered Wednesday in support of a Senate bill that would establish Indigenous People’s Day as a Montana state holiday.
If the bill passes, Indigenous People’s Day would land on the second Monday of October, eliminating Columbus Day as an official state holiday.
Senate Bill 141 appeared for its first time this legislative session before the Education and Cultural Resources Committee during a public hearing Wednesday. The Montana American Indian Caucus wrote a letter of support for the proposal. Montana state law currently recognizes 12 legal holidays each year, including Columbus Day.
The committee is expected to vote on the bill at a later date. If it’s approved, the bill is expected to go to the Senate floor for a vote.
This is the fifth attempt to establish a statewide Indigenous People’s Day in Montana. Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, introduced and sponsored the current version of the proposal. Morigeau said the bill would allow for a chance to help correct the harsh history of the state’s relationship with Indigenous people.
Although Columbus has been celebrated for decades as an explorer who discovered America, historical accounts have increasingly revealed a more complex historical narrative. Multiple states and cities across the country have officially replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
“Instead of having a day that celebrates a man who murdered, raped, and exterminated innocent Native people, I want a day that acknowledges the rich cultural heritage of all Indigenous people in our state,” Morigeau said in a text message to ICT and Montana Free Press. “A day that recognizes the relationships we’ve all forged together because, at the end of the day, we are all Indigenous from somewhere.”
Morigeau said the bill is an attempt to help Montanans better understand the tribes and cultures that are so iconic to the state.
“I’m asking you to recognize the full breadth of history,” Morigeau said in his opening statement to the committee Wednesday. “To be inclusive and to include everyone in this room, in these hallways and in this state. To talk about the wrongs in our history, to write our next chapter together, to reject selective history and recognize the good, the bad and the ugly so that we can learn and do better as a society.”
Marsha Small, a co-founder of Indigenous Peoples Day of Montana, an organization that provides advocacy and education on the significance of the holiday, drove the effort for the past eight years.
Small began the battle to establish Indigenous Peoples Day in 2015 in Bozeman. In 2016, the city formally recognized the holiday in place of Columbus Day.
Small’s drive to get the bill into law is motivated by accuracy and education.
“We thought that we could have a day in Montana to introduce people to both sides of the aisle,” Small said. “To get people to know each other on more of a respectful dialogue, to get to know people from their identities, their ancestral lineages.”
If the bill passes, Montana would become the latest state to commemorate Indigenous Peoples Day, following at least 14 states and 130 cities nationwide.
Several cities and communities in the state have already recognized Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day, including Missoula, Bozeman, and tribal governments.
Montana is home to seven tribal reservations and 12 tribes, including the Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Assiniboine, Little Shell Band of Chippewa, Gros Ventre, Sioux, Plains Cree, Pend d’Oreille and Chippewa.
Across the nation, activists regularly rally in protest against Columbus Day to demonstrate solidarity with Indigenous communities that have historically been misrepresented and misdocumented in history.
Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, brought a draft resolution calling on Congress to “investigate alternatives to the reservation system.” The now-dead proposal was neither the beginning or the end of combative attitudes towards tribal nations in the state.
Among the bill’s supporters at Wednesday’s hearing were representatives of the De La Salle Blackfeet School from Browning, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Multiple students spoke during the hearing, including sixth-grader Kendee Calfbossribs Ollinger.
“I would like to tell you guys what genocide means,” Ollinger told the committee. “It means the deliberate killing of a large number of people, nation or ethnic group. I’m not supposed to be here. Columbus Day should be changed into Indigenous People’s Day to honor the ones who were hurt and killed, but also the ones still here, like me.”
Along with tribal individuals, many concerned citizens have stood in solidarity with the holiday change.
President Joe Biden initially recognized the observation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2021, and again in 2022. Columbus Day remains a federal holiday.
“I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities,” Biden said in his 2021 proclamation. “I also direct that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of our diverse history and the Indigenous peoples who contribute to shaping this Nation.”
With no one presenting opposition testimony during the hearing, committee member Rep. Daniel Emrich, R-Great Falls, commented on the bill. Emrich said he is in favor of a thorough historical education, but doesnt want Columbus Day removed.
“I would support this bill, but it would have to be not erasing a day that we currently have,” Emrich said. “I feel like that it would remind us of who Indigenous people are the same way Columbus Day reminds us of who Columbus was, and we take that holistic approach.”
Morigeau responded by making a distinction between educating people about the history of Christopher Columbus and celebrating a holiday named after him. Morigeau agreed that Columbus should be taught holistically in recognition of his historical significance, but that such education should include what kind of person he was.
“I don’t think it’s someone who belongs in our schools, being celebrated,” Morigeau said. “Because until we actually stop celebrating him, teachers and people aren’t going to talk about the bad things. How could you when you’re trying to celebrate somebody and put them on a pedestal?”
This story is co-published by Montana Free Press and ICT, a news partnership that covers the Montana American Indian Caucus during the state’s 2023 legislative session. Funding is provided in part by the Headwaters Foundation.