By Gail Schontzler Chronicle Staff Writer
Montana State University leaders voted Wednesday to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, joining a growing number of universities replacing Columbus Day with a day honoring American Indians and native people around the world.
After the near-unanimous voice vote by 30 campus leaders on the University Council, the council applauded the Native American studies faculty and students who spent months seeking support from the Bozeman City Commission, Student Senate, Faculty Senate and other campus groups.
“It has been a very emotional ride,” said Meg Singer, a graduate student and member of the Navajo tribe. Singer said when the Associated Students of MSU Senate passed a unanimous resolution and student senators voted “yes after yes after yes,” it told her that “people actually understand” what Native Americans have endured.
Marsha Small, a Native American studies adjunct instructor and member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, initiated the effort, said Walter Fleming, Native American studies department chairman.
Recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day is more than merely symbolic, Small said.
“History is not so pretty,” she said. Celebrating Columbus as a hero and discoverer of America is false, she said. Children and grandchildren must not be taught that he was a hero, she said, but a slave trader who committed atrocious acts and unleashed a “holocaust” on indigenous peoples.
Matt Herman, associate professor of Native American studies, said he is excited and proud that MSU is one of the first universities to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. At Brown University, Herman said, the proposal split the Rhode Island campus and community and become quite contentious.
Others recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day include the University of California at Berkeley, University of Oklahoma, Minneapolis, Seattle and Alaska, the New York Times reported.
Randy Babbitt, physics professor and Faculty Senate chair, said the MSU faculty had endorsed it unanimously. Bob Hawks, former Bozeman major and state senator, called the recognition “long overdue.”
President Waded Cruzado said traditionally the university has swapped Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, with the Friday after Thanksgiving, so employees and students get a four-day Thanksgiving break, and that practice would not change.
Tracy Ellig, MSU spokesman, who suggested voting immediately rather than waiting a month, said Indigenous Peoples’ Day would likely be recognized with campus events, much like celebrations held on American Indian Day in September.
The University Council resolution says that the Montana Constitution recognizes the cultural heritage of indigenous people and education to preserve their culture, that as a land-grant university MSU is committed to equality for all, and it “values the history, thought, culture and technology that indigenous peoples have contributed.” The resolution contains no mention of Columbus or atrocities.
The lone no vote on the resolution came from Sylvia Sparkman, chair of MSU’s Staff Council, which represents hundreds of employees, from secretaries to clerks, laborers, accountants, doctors and attorneys.
The Staff Council is fine with the idea of recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in principle, she said, but it was divided 7-6 on the resolution. That was not because they were being racist, uncooperative or unsympathetic, she said, but because of the way the resolution would be implemented, by replacing Columbus Day and “replacing one heritage with another.”