MSU, Bozeman community push to change name of Columbus Day

MSU and the Bozeman community may be given a new reason to celebrate this October. University and community teams are pushing proposals through the ASMSU Senate and the Bozeman City Council that, if accepted, would recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.

Columbus Day, a national holiday celebrated on the second Monday of October each year, became a federal holiday in 1937. It began as a celebration of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492. Although the holiday is recognized federally, state and local governments can choose whether or not to observe Columbus Day. Currently Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota do not observe the holiday at the state level. Although Montana recognizes Columbus Day, the City of Bozeman does not observe the holiday, and businesses and schools remain open. MSU does not give students the day off on Columbus Day, but rather, exchanges the holiday for the Friday after Thanksgiving to give students a longer Thanksgiving weekend.

Many individuals and groups within the native and indigenous communities find the history of Columbus and the day of celebration in his honor to be both wrong and offensive. Indigenous people are defined as people having, “a set of specific rights based on their historical ties to a particular territory, and their cultural or historical distinctiveness from other populations that are often politically dominant.” Elementary students across the country learn the rhyme, “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and are expected to memorize that date as the discovery of America. Some native and indigenous people consider this contradictory and hurtful, as they had ancestors living on the continent thousands of years before Columbus ever stepped foot on a ship.

The Presidential Proclamation of Columbus Day 2015 on the White House website attempts to address the detrimental effects of Columbus’ arrival on the people who already lived in America. “Previously unseen disease, devastation, and violence were introduced to [the indigenous peoples’] lives—and as we pay tribute to the ways in which Columbus pursued ambitious goals—we also recognize the suffering inflicted upon Native Americans and we recommit to strengthening tribal sovereignty and maintaining our strong ties.” Many in the native and indigenous communities find the recognition of suffering as insufficient and the celebration of Columbus as offensive. Indigenous Peoples’ Day does not only attempt to address the wrongs inflicted on Native Americans in the time of Columbus, but also to recognize the hardships that indigenous people face currently and to celebrate an indigenous culture that still exists today.

The first example of Columbus Day being changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day was in 1992 in Berkeley, California. Since then, many cities and universities across the country have officially recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday. Some cities in observance are Portland, Oregon; St. Paul, Minnesota; Seattle and Missoula, whose city council voted in favor of celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day last October. Brown University in Rhode Island just joined the list of universities observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day by voting to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day last week.

Marsha Small, adjunct instructor in the Department of Native American Studies, is a leading community member in support of Indigenous Peoples’ Day both at the city and university level. Small called the story of Christopher Columbus an “interpretive paradox of history.” She said she would like to not only correct the history surrounding Columbus, but also “address the historical trauma of the indigenous people.” Small believes in initiating the change as soon as possible. “Why wait?” she asked. “[Columbus Day represents] 79 years of historical wrong and trauma that is still happening right now to native peoples.”

On Jan. 17, a resolution presented by Indigenous Peoples’ Day Bozeman, authored by Sheldon Spotted Elk, Ruth Ann Hall Swaney, Marsha F. Small and Marsha M. Fulton and sponsored by Native American Studies at Montana State University, was presented before the Bozeman City Council. The resolution proposed that the mayor and city of Bozeman declare the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Small said that Indigenous Peoples’ Day Bozeman has a meeting with the mayor this week to refine the resolution and that, “things look good, feel good and there’s great energy.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day Montana State University, a student run facilitation, presented a proposal before the ASMSU council that called to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a university observed holiday at MSU. According to Small, Indigenous Peoples’ Day Montana State University has hundreds of members, including MSU staff, students and community members that are in support of this cause.

Ethan Tyler Walker, a graduate student in the Department of Native American Studies and treasurer of the Montana State Chapter of the Society of American Indian Graduate Students wanted to emphasize that Indigenous Peoples’ Day “is not just for Native Americans, but for all indigenous peoples all over the world who have suffered colonialism, genocide and cultural genocide.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 6.6 percent, or approximately 6,750 Montanans are American Indian or Native Alaskan. This is significantly higher than the nationwide average of 1.3 percent. Montana recognizes 13 individual tribes within the state, and has seven designated reservations. According to the annual institution reports on the MSU website, 249 students at MSU identify as American Indian or Native Alaskan, or approximately 2 percent of the university population.

If both Indigenous Peoples’ Day Montana State University and Indigenous Peoples’ Day Bozeman’s initiatives go through, Montana State would join many universities across the country, a list that includes UC Berkeley, University of Utah, Brown University, University of Montana and CU Denver, along with many other universities, and Bozeman will join an ever growing list of major cities who have adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day.