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Indigenous People's Day

The Montana House voted to change the name of Columbus Day to Montana Heritage Day Tuesday.

Kevin Kicking Woman stepped to the microphone at City Hall this week and commenced to sing a song in his native language. Music is a bridge to heaven, he said, and he urged members of the Missoula City Council to consider his culture’s history.

“We’ve got to embrace our past,” Kicking Woman said. “History has to be told right, so our kids can learn right.”

The City Council’s Committee of the Whole agreed and unanimously passed a resolution naming the second Monday in October – currently observed as Columbus Day – as Indigenous People’s Day.

If adopted by the full council next week, Missoula would join a growing number of U.S. cities and states in recognizing that Native Americans occupied North America long before Christopher Columbus landed in 1492.

Ward 4 council member Patrick Weasel Head – the only Native American on the City Council – said Eurocentric history has long credited Columbus with “discovering” the Americas.

But Native Americans have never given Columbus credence. Weasel Head said history must consider and value the peoples who inhabited the continent long before Columbus arrived.

“The impetus behind it is to acknowledge there were peoples here way before Columbus,” said Weasel Head. “We need to acknowledge our culture, our language and who we are, and for Missoula – we’re built on Salish land. If we don’t acknowledge that on Indigenous Day, then when do we acknowledge it?”

Weasel Head said Native Americans suffer historical trauma over the loss of their land, their language and culture – losses they trace to the arrival of Columbus and the wave of European settlement that followed over the next four centuries.

While recognizing the date as Indigenous People's Day won’t alone heal that trauma, Weasel Head said, it will prompt some to consider those who came before Columbus. He brought the resolution forward with council members Marilyn Marler and Mike O’Herron.

“Finally, Missoula is considering this change,” said supporter Roberta Crane. “It’s way past time and for such an open-minded community. It was embarrassing that Missoula still celebrated Columbus Day.”

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In 2002, Venezuela renamed the holiday Day of Indigenous Resistance. In South Dakota, it’s now Native American Day. Hawaii calls it Discoverers' Day, and Seattle passed a similar resolution this month, also naming it Indigenous People’s Day.

Efforts to rename the holiday have been a long time coming, according to Rosalyn LaPier, who co-authored “City Indian” with David Beck, detailing the swell of Indian activism that took place in Chicago between 1893 and 1934.

“There was a great amount of Native activism in the city of Chicago that started in 1893 after the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in this hemisphere,” said LaPier. “Chicago was celebrating the World’s Columbian Exposition, and Native people protested the celebration of Columbus at that time.”

Columbus Day was not yet a day of national celebration, LaPier said. But despite the protest of Native Americans and efforts by activist Simon Pokagon – a member of the Potawatomi Tribe and author of the 1893 manual “Red Man’s Rebuke” – it went on to become a federal holiday in 1937.

“When your constituents ask why Indians are bringing this up now – why this is something that’s so new – well, it’s not something new,” LaPier said. “Native people have been protesting this celebration and particular day for a very long time.”

Mayor John Engen also joined the resolution, saying the change was long overdue.

Those employed in local government get Columbus Day off. They will continue to do so, though the city will recognize the date moving forward as Indigenous People’s Day.

“I want to be clear that recognizing the second Monday in October each year as Indigenous People’s Day is not by any means trying to take away a date the unions have bargained for to take off,” said Marler. “We’re not trying to take away a negotiated thing.”

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