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Lawmakers introduce bills to protect and celebrate indigenous cultures

by By Austin Amestoy, UM Legislative News Service
| February 14, 2021 8:35 AM

Bills seeking to establish Indigenous Peoples Day in Montana resurfaced for the third time in the Legislature with renewed support from advocates who said it’s time to celebrate the history of the state’s Indigenous peoples.

Previous measures to establish the holiday in 2017 and 2019 died in the process.

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, is sponsoring Senate Bill 146, which would remove Columbus Day as a state holiday and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day. Morigeau carried similar legislation last session, but it died in the Senate after receiving bipartisan support in the House.

Morigeau and many proponents of the bill said the measure was not intended to rewrite history.

“To the contrary,” Morigeau said, “I’m asking you to recognize the full breadth of history.”

The bill received overwhelming support from members of Montana’s Indigenous tribes, advocacy groups, and other concerned Montanans who said the holiday would celebrate the histories of all Indigenous peoples from all parts of the world.

Billings-based Indigenous artist Ben Pease said the bill celebrates diversity in Montana.

“We are all Indigenous, each and every one of us, to one hemisphere or another,” Pease said. “We have a responsibility to recognize our history, present and future.”

Kelli Twoteeth, a representative from Montana Native Vote, said the Legislature should continue its support of Indigenous causes and referenced the recent installation of the flags of Montana’s eight tribal nations outside the Capitol.

“If you want to put eight tribal flags outside and say you care for Indian country, we ask you to pass this bill,” Twoteeth said.

The committee also heard Senate Bill 94, sponsored by Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, which would establish Indigenous Peoples Day, but retain Columbus Day as a holiday as well.

That bill also received broad support, but many proponents noted they would rather SB 146 become law.

Webber explained that her bill came as a result of the measure’s failure in previous sessions as a compromise allowing Columbus Day to continue, but said she would rather Morigeau’s bill be passed.

The House Education Committee heard a seperate bill Wednesday intended to preserve Indigenous culture.

House Bill 286, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, would require the Montana Digital Academy -- an online learning program for public schools administered by the University System -- offer courses on Indigenous language and culture.

Windy Boy previously sponsored a successful bill in 2013 that started a “Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program” appropriating money to create dictionaries and audio and visual media capturing various forms of Indigenous communication. He said his latest bill would help expand the areas children learning Indigenous languages are able to practice by creating an accessible digital component.

Proponents of the bill cited a portion of Article X of the Montana Constitution that says the state “recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”

Robert Currie, the executive director of the Montana Digital Academy, said the program is not currently administering any Native language programs, which Windy Boy said the legislation is intended to address.

“In reality, they’ve been in violation of the state Constitution since 2009 when they created that program,” Windy Boy said. “If they’re not going to move on this, then this bill will make them do it.”

Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Amestoy can be reached at austin.amestoy@umontana.edu.