Helenans demonstrate near Capitol for Indigenous Peoples Day (copy)

Kelli Twoteeth, far left, a Chippewa-Cree and Salish-Pend d'Oreille activist, rallies for Indigenous Peoples Day near the Capitol in this October 2018 Independent-Record file photo.

A proposal for Montana to observe Indigenous Peoples Day as a state holiday instead of Columbus Day failed Monday in a state Senate committee.

House Bill 219, carried by Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, cleared the House by a 27-vote margin in February but fell 5-3 in the Senate State Administration Committee. If passed, the bill would have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on Montana's list of state-observed holidays. Monday's vote strictly followed party lines, with two Republican votes to table cast by proxy. 

Morigeau said Tuesday the bill’s tabling both was and wasn’t surprising, given the bipartisan support it received in the House — but also the Senate committee’s reputation.

“That was surprising when you see people finally starting to understand where everyone’s coming from and wanting to establish something that represents everybody,” Morigeau said. “I knew that going over into that committee it was going to be tough …. So in that regard I wasn’t surprised.”

Before the vote, amendments from Morigeau and committee vice chair Sen. Douglas Kary, R-Billings, failed. Morigeau’s amendment would have changed the bill’s proposed date of Indigenous Peoples Day, while Kary’s would have retained Columbus Day as a state holiday and changed the date of Indigenous Peoples Day. 

“I think a big part of what you heard from a long line of people who were proponents to the bill … was that having a celebration here in Montana for a colonizer who came into the Americas-ish and brutally decimated Native populations just doesn’t match up with the culture that we have here in the state," committee vice chair Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said in opposition to Kary’s amendment.

Proponents of Morigeau’s bill from around the state spoke for nearly an hour when it came before the committee on March 13. Only Allen Cormany, state deputy of the Montana Knights of Columbus, rose in opposition. Cormany suggested observing Indigenous Peoples Day and Columbus Day on the same date instead.

Bennett also noted Monday that observing an extra state holiday would negatively affect the state’s already tight finances.

Kary responded by talking about the statue of Thomas Meagher, an acting territorial governor of Montana, that faces Sixth Avenue on the Capitol grounds.

“He was a prisoner that was sent to Australia and ended up up here … ,” Kary said of Meagher, who was exiled for his role in the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848 but later escaped to the United States. “Now, Christopher Columbus was also a bad dude. He was sent out to a place he was probably not expected to come back, but he did. And from that, even though a lot of bad things happened, there were some good things. I didn’t choose to claim my Columbus Day celebration, and I’m not choosing the other side either, to choose an Indigenous (Peoples) Day. Because our indigenous people more than likely came over from Asia.”

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Committee chair Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, said she opposed Kary’s amendment because of the fiscal impact of an extra state holiday, then talked about her hopes for a compromise.

“We’re trying to scramble for money for in-home health care for people,” Brown said. “I think that the sponsor will probably be back in the Legislature in a future session, and I hope that the tribes would sit down, not inside just their caucus, but talk to other people who see the value and can come up with a solution.

“I see as a real solution we could have a celebration. I really do. But when it starts costing everybody a bunch of money, then I have to step back and say, ‘I have responsibilities to the taxpayer, too.’ I would like to see the governor declare Indigenous Peoples Day the Saturday of every powwow in this state. I think that’s the time to celebrate, but that isn't this bill before us.”

Morigeau said he thought the support the bill received in last month’s committee hearing made it clear that the bill had been considered thoroughly.

“When you see that type of support for something, I just don’t understand how you can sit there and say people need to keep talking about it,” Morigeau said. “I think that committee process exists so we can talk about it and make something that we can all move foward on.”

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