Councilwoman Ruth Ann Swaney made two notable statements Monday at the Missoula City Council meeting.
Swaney, who represents Ward 2, announced her coming resignation from the council in the next month. She plans to return home to North Dakota to work for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in the tribal education department.
During the pledge of allegiance, she also took a knee, joining a national protest of racism that’s been highlighted by athletes. Her act drew praise from fellow Councilor John DiBari, who said he appreciated Swaney’s exercise of her First Amendment right.
“I think that was brave and fitting,” DiBari said.
At the meeting, several members of the public also protested the Festival of the Dead parade in Missoula and asked the council to renounce the event.
"To me, the event smacks of cultural appropriation," said David Beck, one of several people who spoke out against it.
Asking the council to consider a resolution renouncing the festival, Beck said the event takes ceremonial religious practices of central Mexico and uses them for its own purpose.
"The monthlong celebration, which culminates in a parade, is a direct ripoff of Day of the Dead," Beck said.
Ekoo Beck asked the city to put a stop to the parade. She grew up in Missoula with it, then studied at Harvard University, and Beck returned home appalled to see the event still taking place.
She was socialized to believe the parade was normal, and she said if the council allows it to continue, more people will be misguided.
"If we don't stop this, there are going to be generations just like me thinking this appropriation is OK," Beck said.
Rosalyn LaPier likened the face painting that goes along with the parade to "blackface," where white actors used to paint their faces and stereotype black people. Except LaPier said the festival engaged in "whiteface” and was part of a couple months in which Native American people endure a series of holidays where others pretend to be American Indian.
She and other members of the public said a quiet protest of the event earlier in the week drew blatantly racist taunts, where opponents of the protesters lunged at them, but only at the people who appeared to be Native American and not at people who looked white. LaPier said one person came within four inches of her nose.
“It was a public space in the city of Missoula. It's not their space. It is our space,” LaPier said.
In response, several council members offered support. Council president Marilyn Marler said she herself has participated in the past and painted her face, and it was painful to hear that her actions had been hurtful.
“I feel now that I was wrong to participate in that, and I will encourage other people not to participate,” Marler said.
Councilman Jon Wilkins and other councilors thanked Swaney for her service and insight. He also said the people who heckled the protestors of the parade should be ashamed of themselves.
“You should be sorry. I didn’t think Missoula did that kind of thing,” Wilkins said.
After the meeting, Swaney said she took a knee during the pledge to raise awareness of issues that are troubling nationally and locally. She said one related local problem is the disproportionate number of American Indians who are incarcerated.
“One way of effecting change is to be an ally and to stand in solidarity with others,” Swaney said.
City Clerk Marty Rehbein said once Swaney sets a resignation date, the council will take applications and then appoint a councilor to the seat.
In other business, the council also approved updates to the sign ordinance to be in compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court order.