Montana Senate Votes Against Indigenous Peoples Holiday

Proposal would have replaced Columbus Day with a state holiday

The Montana state Senate voted Tuesday afternoon against discussing a bill that would have established Indigenous Peoples Day in the state following debate over how the new holiday would replace Columbus Day.

However, at least one member of the Montana American Indian Caucus plans to introduce another bill that would move the state-recognized American Indian Heritage Day to October, the same month as Columbus Day.

Sen. Susan Webber, a Democrat from Browning and a Montana American Indian Caucus member who introduced Tuesday’s motion to discuss Indigenous Peoples Day, said that she wanted to debate the bill, SB 141, after the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee tabled it on Monday.

Bills killed in committee can be brought to the floor for debate using a so-called blast motion, which requires a simple majority to resurrect a stalled bill. However, the Senate voted 33-17 against the motion, with all Republicans except Native caucus chair, Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby in opposition.

“There were 39 people who spoke in support of the bill; there were no opponents,” said Webber, Blackfeet, in her opening statement. She was referring to a public hearing held on Feb. 8. “These 39 people came from over the state of Montana to support [the bill], and they deserve to understand why the bill was tabled.”

Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said on the floor in opposition to the blast motion that the language and quotes used by the bill’s sponsor during its introduction to the committee made him uncomfortable.

“He starts off with, and I can quote, with accusing Columbus of rape, beheading, amputations, slicing torsos in two, sex trafficking. You can imagine where this hearing went in a hurry,” Salomon said to the Senate.

Salomon also expressed how angry these accusations made him during the committee hearing. He attributed the bill’s failure to its sponsor, Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula.

“Folks, this was the classic, and I do mean classic case, of a bill sponsor killing his own bill,” he said.

Morigeau, a citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, responded to Salomon on the Senate floor.

“The committee killed the bill, not me,” Morgieau said. “I don’t know how you have a discussion about someone who was identified historically during his time to have done things that were not part of the norm without actually talking about those things. I don’t think we can have discussions about things and hide history and whitewash history.”

Morigeau’s bill was the latest attempt to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day in Montana. Similar attempts to create the holiday have gone before the Montana Legislature during each of the past four sessions. Supporters say the bill is an attempt to increase education on the history of the state’s relationship with its Indigenous communities.

The bill initially stalled Monday in committee with legislators voting on party lines.

Morigeau said the move cut short a much-needed conversation.

“Everyone is Indigenous to somewhere,” Morigeau said in a press release. “This is a way to celebrate everyone’s heritage in a way that is inclusive and can promote healing and togetherness. It’s a shame SB 141 was tabled without giving it the conversation it deserved.”

Meanwhile, Webber was prepared for the worst-case scenario. On Tuesday, she had a rough draft of a new bill that would move American Indian Heritage Day from September to Oct. 12, which is considered the traditional day of the American Columbus Day. Federally, the United States now recognizes the holiday on the second Monday of October.

Montana already recognizes Heritage Day as a day of observance to commemorate the state’s American Indians and their valued heritage and culture. However, Webber’s latest bill could be seen as another attempt by the caucus to eclipse Columbus Day.

The bill has not yet been assigned a number.

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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.

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