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Bozeman group pushes to rename Columbus Day for indigenous people

Dec 1, 2015, by Eric Dietrich, Bozeman Daily Chronicle Staff Writer

Marsha Small, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member, remembers the elementary school lessons where teachers passed around pictures of the three ships in Christopher Columbus’ famed 1492 expedition, the fateful trip that spurred European colonization of the Americas.

“They’d say ‘color them,’” she said Monday to about 40 people at the Bozeman Public Library.

Absent from those lessons, she said, was mention of the darker side of the explorer’s legacy — looting, rape and human trafficking carried out both under his command and by his successors in the centuries that followed.

“This needs to be recognized,” Small said. “I don’t want my grandson growing up thinking Columbus is a cool dude or having to color those three pictures.”

Small and others present at the Monday meeting argue it’s time for Bozeman to leave the Columbus Day holiday in October — called by one speaker an “endorsement of genocide” — behind.

Instead, they say, the city should follow in the footsteps of places like Missoula, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, by renaming the holiday “Indigenous Peoples Day” and rededicating it to celebrating the accomplishments and resiliency of the people already living on the continent when the explorer arrived, including Montana’s Native American minority.

In the coming months, organizers said, they hope to see the Bozeman City Commission pass a formal resolution endorsing the renamed holiday. They’ll also be circulating a petition in support of the change.

Currently, Bozeman’s city offices are open on Columbus Day, according to City Manager Chris Kukulski. He said it’s his understanding that city employees agreed at some point in the past to work the federal holiday in exchange for having the Friday after Thanksgiving off.

Missoula’s City Council endorsed a similar resolution in October on an 11-0 vote, according to a report by the Missoula Independent. South Dakota lawmakers renamed the holiday in 1990.

Walter Fleming, MSU’s Native American studies department head, said Columbus Day has only been federally recognized since the 1930s.

“It’s not always been this way,” he said. “In fact, only fairly recently has it been this way.”

Formal recognition of Columbus Day was initially pushed by Italian Americans in the early 20th century to combat discrimination they faced over their nationality and Catholic faith, according to a 2013 report by National Public Radio. It became a federal holiday under President Franklin Roosevelt as a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal society.

Fleming also contested the argument that renaming the holiday is simply political correctness gone wild.

“That’s a disguise for racism,” he said, calling it a “lazy way” to address painful history.

“This isn’t naming a state arachnid or something of that level,” Fleming said. “It’s significant. It’s historic. It’s timely.”