A procession of supporters of two bills establishing an Indigenous People’s Day in Montana offered their personal stories Wednesday to illustrate a broader lack of understanding of Native American history – as well Columbus Day‘s namesake – in the state.
“Why celebrate a man who committed deplorable and horrendous acts against humanity?” Billings resident Ben Pease asked the Senate State Administration Committee. “Yeah, Christopher Columbus was a murderer, we know this. But more importantly today, why teach an alternate, false history to our children and ourselves, and continue to lionize such a horrible human being?”
Pease, an Apsaalooke artist who is one of the co-founders of Indigenous People’s Day Montana, said the new holiday would offer a chance to celebrate Montana’s diversity while correcting long-standing misperceptions about the violent colonization of the continent.
“Indigenous People’s Day will be a day of education and celebration for all peoples,” he said. “Our movement is not race-centric. It focuses on making this country great for everyone, while facts and education lead us into the future.”
Senate Bill 146, sponsored by Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, would strike “Columbus Day” from the state law listing it as the second Monday in October, and would instead replace it with “Indigenous People’s Day.”
Senate Bill 94, sponsored by Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, proposes a change to the same section of code, but would instead insert language stating that the day “may be recognized as Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day.”
Webber’s bill would also update language encouraging school districts to conduct holiday-related exercises for Columbus Day every Oct. 12.
Morigeau pitched his proposal as one that would unite all Montanans – not just Native residents of the state – while condemning Christopher Columbus as a man who today would be reviled as a promoter of genocide and human trafficking.
“I dread the annual celebration of a man who murdered, raped, and exterminated innocent Native people in the current Dominican Republic,” Morigeau told the committee.
Many of the speakers referred to this being their second or third time testifying in support of the proposal. The committee in which proponents of the bills testified Wednesday has previously killed two of those earlier attempts to change the holiday, including one that passed the House floor by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in 2019.
Committee Chairman Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, limited each speaker to three minutes during both bill hearings.
Representatives from a wide range of organizations, including Montana Native Vote, Montana Women Vote, the Northern Plains Resource Council and the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, spoke in support of the proposals. No one spoke in opposition.
Kary noted that Montana already has an American Indian Heritage Day, although it is not listed as a legal holiday and instead appears in the state law dealing with school district exercises.
He asked Marsha Small, one of the Indigenous People’s Day Montana co-founders, how the two holidays would be different. She responded that Indian Heritage Day is more specific to Indian culture.
“On Indigenous People’s Day, once it’s passed we can celebrate each other,” Small said. “I can learn about your heritage, you can learn about my heritage.”
Helena resident Roberta Duckhead Kittson Nyomo recalled growing up in the town of Paradise where she said she wasn’t allowed to learn about her Native heritage, and instead was given private lessons with her brother away from the other students.
She echoed other speakers’ arguments that an Indigenous People’s Day in the state would allow for a greater understanding of all the cultures that have contributed to its history.
“It’s about all of us, it’s about love, it’s about friendship, it’s about passing on our heritage to other people,” she said, “to let them know that we are one big, awesome country, and we have all different types of cultures here.”
The committee did not take any immediate action on either of the bills.