Missoula Protesters: Abolish Columbus Day in Favor of Indigenous Peoples Day
To Kathleen Little Leaf, Columbus Day "as a whole encompasses racism."
"The historical perspective of Columbus Day is horrible," said Little Leaf, an organizer with Indian People's Action.
The grassroots statewide group led a protest of the federal holiday in Missoula on Monday, objecting to the celebration of the explorer and everything the day represents: the myth that a continent populated with millions of native people for thousands of years was "discovered," the subsequent mass murder of Indian peoples, and government policies that led to such things as reservations and boarding schools.
"It appears the violence has continued against the indigenous by being silent and disregarding Native Americans as people," she said.
Monday's event started with a gathering of some 150 community members outside the Missoula County Courthouse, which Little Leaf pointed out was closed for the day, along with the post office.
The peaceful protest was an initial step for the group to raise awareness. In the future, Little Leaf said the group will begin petitioning on some level to abolish Columbus Day and implement an Indigenous Peoples Day in its place, an action that some states and cities have taken.
"Our history is not just indigenous people's history, it's all of our history," she said. "It needs to be recognized, it needs to be acknowledged, and it's one step further in acknowledging the issues of racism," she said.
Michaelynn Hawk, director of Indian People's Action, asked why Columbus Day should be considered a holiday in the first place.
"What did he do that was so honorable? There's nothing that he did that was honorable. He literally came in and wanted to wipe out the Native Americans," she said.
Shelly Fyant, a Bitterroot Salish member of the tribal council for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, listed off the cities around the United States that no longer acknowledge the holiday: including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Olympia, Washington; Lawrence, Kansas; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The protesters, flying banners that bore slogans like "Idle No More" and "Abolish Columbus Day Celebration," departed from the courthouse toward Higgins Avenue and took a U-shaped route across the bridge and back up Higgins on the opposite side of the street.
Some cars honked in solidarity as the group crossed the bridge, chanting "Indigenous Day all the way."
Isadore Mitchell and his wife Sashay drove down from Arlee for the protest.
"We just saw a friend post about it on Facebook, and we felt it was more important than what we were doing," he said.
Like the speakers, he objects not just to the holiday but its symbolism.
"To me, it's not just Columbus Day, it represents everything. A lot more than Columbus Day. Because they're recognizing Columbus over the people that were already here. And that just seems ridiculous," he said.
"It brings up every policy done to eradicate native people, and then they celebrate somebody who shouldn't be celebrated in any country," he said.
Mitchell lives on the Flathead Indian Reservation, but isn't an enrolled member.
"I'm not enrolled in the tribe because of the policies by the government. I'm half Native American, but the policies they put in place won't allow me to be enrolled," he said.
He said he's noticed shifting attitudes toward the holiday as younger generations begin to speak out, and was pleased to see the multicultural makeup of the protest group.
"You don't have to do it because it relates to you, you can do it because you believe it's right," he said.
Little Leaf spoke again at the end of the protest, saying that the holiday should be removed at a state and national level, and that it's a first step to "let our leaders know that this isn't OK."