Just before 3 PM Monday, as the Senate resumed normal business on second reading calendar, a group of 5 to 6 people who had patiently waited for the right moment, broke into shouts and unfurled banners and signs bearing symbols of the American Indian Movement, (AIM) condemning what they termed as the genocide of America’s native peoples.
The demonstration stemmed from the previous Senate defeat of SB 170 – Indigenous Peoples Day, sponsored by Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat -Salt Lake City).
Angry shouts of “You’re on stolen land!,” and “Stop treating us like we’re dead! We’re still here, you know ?!” reverberated along the marbled walls normally reserved for polite and ordered discussion.
There was nothing polite or ordered about this demonstration that lasted several minutes before the disruptors could be led from the chamber gallery and into the hall on the fourth floor of Utah’s capitol building. From there, the noisy procession moved down a flight of stairs and to the same level as the Senate floor itself.
On hand to ensure public safety were several of the Sergeant-at-Arms staff and troopers with the Utah Highway Patrol,
The UHP has powers to police the capitol campus’ uniquely state-maintained jurisdiction.
Senate leadership quickly invited the protesters inside the Senate lounge for a closed-door meeting that lasted more than 90 minutes by some accounts and because the media were kept from the private discussions, none of the protesters’ names were obtained or released. Senate business quickly resumed with Senator Ralph Okerlund (Republican – Monroe) taking the President’s gavel. No arrests were made.
Some of the dissidents’ leaders specifically called-out Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross) who spoke and voted against Dabakis’ bill when it was presented last week. That became the basis for the disruption, seemingly a retaliatory move against Weiler and any of the other senators who voted to defeat the measure attempting to honor Utah’s Indigenous People.
During the Senate debate on March 1, it was noted that Utah already did have an “Indigenous People’s Day” on the books, designated as the Monday before Thanksgiving weekend in each November. Senator Dabakis had dismissed the supposed equality of the prior designation by describing the November date as “lesser than a national holiday” when compared to Columbus Day, a holiday observed by schools, banks, and state and federal government. In the ensuing discussion on the bill’s merits, Senator Weiler, speaking in opposition, said that referring to Christopher Columbus as anything but a hero would be “rewriting history.”
In the ensuing discussion on the bill’s merits, Senator Weiler, speaking in opposition, said that referring to Christopher Columbus as anything but a hero would be “rewriting history.”
Indigenous peoples in modern-day America have become more politically active and assertive in public policy discussions that have traditionally been the purview of white and male decision makers.
Their activism actually has roots in the protests of the 1960s and 70s at a time when Alcatraz Island was occupied for several weeks. Last October, a tribal coalition sought President Obama’s assistance to designate hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands near “Bears Ears” in South Eastern Utah declared a national monument.
Native American activism comes at a time when Utah’s congressional delegation has introduced their “Public Lands Initiative,” led by Utah Congressman Rob Bishop (Republican) and summarily denounced as “wholly inadequate and insensitive,” patently insufficient to allow for honoring native people’s ancestors by Native American leaders.