Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Recognition of the Impact of Indian Country’s Contributions

Indigenous Peoples’ Day falls on October 14 this year. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a celebration of indigenous history, culture, existence, and acknowledges that this land was not discovered, but stolen. Across the country, a growing list of states and cities, including Bozeman, Harlem, Helena, and Missoula, have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In the 2019 session, the Montana Legislature failed to pass HB 219, which would have made the change across the state.

Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day would recognize the contributions and contemporary existence of indigenous peoples. It would also challenge an inaccurate history that ignores acts of genocide and atrocities committed against indigenous peoples since 1492, when Columbus reached the “New World.” According to Illuminatives, 72 percent of Americans rarely encounter or receive information about American Indians, and 87 percent of state-level history standards fail to cover American Indian history past 1900.

Montana’s Legislature has taken steps towards recognizing the contributions of Indian Country and providing information about American Indians, and some examples are included below. However, there is still more to do.

Montana was the first state to invest in Indian Education for All (IEFA), a state constitutional mandate requiring educators to integrate American Indian content in all instruction. IEFA’s intent is to provide an inclusive and more comprehensive curriculum on the history and contributions of American Indians. Denise Juneau, Montana’s then-Superintendent of Public Instruction, called IEFA a “constitutional, ethical, and moral obligation,” which would benefit not only American Indian students, but would also give non-Indian students a “richer understanding of our State’s history and contemporary life.”

Although mandate had been a part of the state constitution since 1972, the state did not implement the curriculum until 1999. In 2005, the Montana Legislature allocated more than $7 million for implementation in local school districts and allotted more than $3 million to the Montana Office of Public Instruction to make IEFA curriculum more of a reality. However, implementation and integration of IEFA curriculum are ongoing issues.

For example, the majority of public school teachers in Montana are non-Indian, and it can be difficult to teach curriculum about American Indians without background knowledge themselves. Some programs, such as the IEFA Trainer of Trainers program, work on educating district teachers and administrators on implementing American Indian perspectives within the curriculum.

As another example, the Legislature has taken steps to preserve and promote tribal languages in Montana. The Montana Indian Language Preservation Program (MILP) and language immersion programs have helped curb tribal language loss by promoting the creation of language education courses, dictionaries, sound books, and Montana tribal nations language apps, as well as by increasing school districts’ capacity. As a result, all Montanans now have greater access to tribal languages.

American Indian students in Montana with access to language-based curricula and instruction have shown an increased sense of cultural identity. For American Indian students in immersion programs, retention rates are higher than those who do not receive language immersion and there is an increase in tribal community engagement.

The Legislature has historically funded these programs on a one-time-only (OTO) basis. In the 2019 legislative session MILP’s OTO status was maintained in HB 2 at $1.5 million for the 2021 biennium. HB 41 extended the termination date of the Cultural Integrity Commitment Act, supporting immersion programs, from June 30, 2019, to June 30, 2023. The Legislature should make funding for MILP and language immersion programs permanent, rather than one-time-only. These programs are an important step forward in improving student outcomes, strengthening communities, and preserving culture, language, and history in Montana. To learn more about these immersion programs and language preservation, read MBPC’s report, “Continued Preservation of Tribal Languages in Montana.”

In addition, Indian Country contributes significantly to Montana’s economy. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2009, the seven reservation communities in Montana and the Little Shell Tribe contributed more than $6.6 billion in public sector dollars to the Montana economy. This number would be even larger if it included private sector contributions.

This past 2019 session, HB 632 appropriated $48,000 to the Department of Commerce to publish an updated report on the economic contributions and impacts of reservations in Montana. This report will measure contributions from both public and private sectors and will provide valuable information on the economic landscapes in Indian Country and its impact on Montana’s economy as a whole.

Recognizing the contemporary existence and contributions of Indian Country and American Indians is important.  The Montana Legislature has the evidence it needs to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

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