The dramatic sounds of American Indian drumming and singing echoed across Montana State University’s central mall Monday as a crowd gathered to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.

A large teepee had been erected in front of Montana Hall, and several students held colorful flags representing Montana’s Native American nations.

Other students carried posters calling attention to the high rates of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. “No More Stolen Sisters,” one sign read. “Stop the violence,” the students chanted.

The celebration culminated with everyone invited to join hands in a large circle dance as a symbol of unity. Each person sidestepped clockwise to the pounding beat of the drums.

“It’s now become a tradition, and round-dancing is something people look forward to,” said Walter Fleming, chair of MSU’s Native American studies.

Eight states now recognize Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day, from Maine to New Mexico, but Montana isn’t one of them, Fleming told the crowd of about 150. He called on people to advocate for the change at the next Legislature in 2021.

Fleming said he takes heart that MSU and the cities of Bozeman and even Harlem now recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, along with about 130 other U.S. cities. The movement is growing, he said.

MSU President Waded Cruzado said that in 2016 the Bozeman campus became the first university in Montana to change from celebrating Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, at the urging of passionate advocates, including students, faculty and citizens.

Cruzado recalled that at this celebration one year ago she announced million-dollar gifts from The Kendeda Fund, MSU student government and other donors, which finally raised enough to build a long-sought American Indian Hall.

Now under construction, the $20 million hall is slated to open in the fall of 2021. It will be a “beautiful, new, state-of-the art building, that will welcome all, particularly our Native American students,” she said.

Bree Deputee spoke on the tragedy of violence against Native American women. A Crow and Northern Cheyenne student majoring in nursing, Deputee founded the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Awareness campaign on campus.

Last year over Christmas break, she said, she returned home to Lame Deer, where a 14-year-old girl, Henny Scott, was missing. Two weeks later the girl’s body was found by a search party of volunteers organized by her parents.

Deputee said it’s like the story of 20-year-old Ashley Heavy Runner, who disappeared two years ago from the Blackfeet reservation.

“They don’t get justice,” Deputee said. “They don’t get the same recognition in statistics or in the news. One in four native women will be sexually assaulted. Where is our justice? We’re 10 times more likely to be murdered.”

Yet native women are also resilient and keep working every day and coming to school, Deputee said. “The birth of every indigenous child is a victory against genocide.”

Cruzado announced that Loren BirdRattler of the Blackfeet nation is joining MSU as its fourth Katz endowed chair in Native American studies.

BirdRattler said he is the agricultural resource manager for the Blackfeet tribe and spoke last year to the United Nations on indigenous approaches to natural resource management, climate adaptation and commercial food production. At MSU, he said he is working on an indigenous research initiative to strengthen protections for tribes’ intellectual property rights.

Carson Taylor, former Bozeman mayor, said he issued a proclamation in 2016 declaring the second Monday in October to be Indigenous Peoples Day and felt indebted to current Mayor Cyndy Andrus for continuing the practice. Both mayors attended Monday’s event and round dance at MSU, and native singers were invited to perform an honor song at that evening’s city commission meeting.

“I could come every year to a round dance,” Taylor said. “It gives you a sense of unity of all people. We are all one. And it’s forcing me to do something I don’t do very well – keep the beat.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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