BOISE — There are no Native Americans currently serving in the Idaho State Legislature, but that didn’t stop hundreds of indigenous Idahoans from filling the towering atrium of the state Capitol with the sound of drums.
Dressed in a wide range of traditional tribal and modern clothing, representatives from Idaho’s five federally recognized tribes and other Native Americans living across Idaho converged under the rotunda on Monday to celebrate Gov. Brad Little proclaiming what has traditionally been Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Celebrations included speeches and drumming performed by Lightning Creek of Idaho’s Nez Perce tribe.
The proclamation was read on Little’s behalf by Danielle Keith, 13, of the Haida and Athabaskan nations. She read, “Whereas the State of Idaho recognizes the vast contributions made by Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge, science, philosophy, arts and culture, which have help the state of Idaho grow and thrive.”
Tribal members in attendance praised the governor’s proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, though all of them said it was “just the beginning” to giving native people a “seat at the table.”
“Today, what we are doing here, it is a huge deal,” said Kevin Callahan of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes Business Council. He added, “We have a lot more work to do. We need to work together for Idaho, work together for communities, work together for all of our people.”
In recent years, governments and other organizations across the country have been shifting from celebrating Columbus Day, which celebrates the arrival of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in North America in 1492, to honoring the history, culture and contributions of indigenous people instead. Columbus’ arrival to the present-day Bahamas marked the beginning of western European settlement of the continent, but also the long-running, violent conquest of people groups who had lived on the continent for thousands of years.
Tai Simpson, one of the organizers of Monday’s event and a Nez Perce tribal member, said the goal of the event is not to erase history. Instead, it’s about celebrating indigenous people and their legacy that has often gone unsung.
“The defense mechanism is to say, ‘You’re rewriting history,’ but that’s not what’s happening,” she said. “It’s really just this is the entire group of people on whose land we’ve built our entire civilization, and recognizing them for a day and celebrating their life and their contributions, instead of celebrating the genocide caused by Columbus. That really is a step toward reconciliation.”
Idaho’s five tribes, including the Coeur d’Alene, the Kootenai, the Nez Perce, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and the Shoshone-Paiute reside throughout the state’s different regions and function as sovereign nations.
Today, Native Americans make up only 0.2% of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Though a small percentage, their efforts to preserve their heritage and advocate for progress are visible in the Treasure Valley and throughout Idaho.
BOISE VALLEY PEOPLE
Prior to the arrival of settlers to the area en masse in the mid-1800s, a thriving Native American population lived on the banks of the Boise River and the surrounding valley, known as the Boise Valley People. In 1864, Boise’s indigenous residents signed a treaty with Caleb Lyon, governor of the Idaho Territory, saying they would give up all of the land in the Treasure Valley, except for 30 miles on either side of the river.
The Boise Valley People turned over the land to the white settlers, but Congress never ratified the treaty. The title to the land was never returned to the area’s original residents. Once silver and gold was discovered in the area in 1869, cavalry forcibly marched the Native Americans out of the Treasure Valley and pushed them in multiple directions. Their descendants became the Burns Paiute of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Paiute Band, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone of Nevada, the Shoshone-Paiute and the Shoshone-Bannock tribes today.
Since 2010, hundreds of representatives from these five tribes have reunited every summer in Boise to celebrate their heritage and pray at the newly renamed Eagle Rock Park and Chief Eagle Eye Reserve in Boise, formerly Quarry View Park off Warm Springs Avenue. Attendees visit with friends and family, share stories of their common heritage with the other tribal members, and share the history of how the Boise Valley People were forced to leave their land.
The event, called Return of the Boise Valley People, has been growing since it began. Tribal members held their opening ceremony for the weekend-long event in front of Boise City Hall for the first time in 2018, and months later Boise Mayor Dave Bieter declared Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Lori Edmo, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and one of the event organizers, said the event is important both to honor their ancestors and keep the connection alive between those who are currently alive and the generations that came before.
“A lot of it is so they won’t forget us, and we won’t forget them,” Edmo said.
Casey Mitchell, of the Nez Perce tribe, who spoke at Monday’s reading in Boise, said the proclamation was important to “celebrate the people who first called this land home.”
“We want to remember the struggles, the tragedies that our people endured,” he said. “We want to remember our ancestors, what they did for us.”
Mitchell praised all of the parents and teachers who brought their children and students to the Capitol building on Monday. He said it was important for them to hear the proclamation being read.
Callahan brought his daughter up to the lectern with him when it was his turn to give a speech. He said he grew up being made fun of in school for his long hair and dark skin color, but he said as he became more knowledgeable about his ancestors and about “what it means to be a native man,” he learned that no matter, despite being made fun of and looked down on, indigenous people are “always going to be here, no matter what happens.”
Callahan said he was glad to bring his children to the event on Monday, so they could witness the proclamation reading and understand their native culture.
“I am glad that my kids won’t have to grow up (being made fun of) anymore because of the fighting our people have done over the years,” Callahan said.
At Monday’s ceremony, Boise City Councilwoman Lisa Sanchez said, “We need to do more. This is not enough that we have these commemorations.
“We need to actually connect our city with the people who originally lived here,” she said. “That means hiring people so they feel represented in our governments, not just ceremonially.”
Native American imagery and culture is used for school mascots statewide, which is something tribes are fighting to change.
Earlier this year, the school board in Teton County voted to retire the Teton Valley High School’s “Redskins” mascot after fierce opposition to the change.
The Boise School District also moved to change the mascot of Boise High School from the Boise Braves to the Boise Brave instead.
Both changes have been endorsed by tribes as a step in the right direction, but other Idaho school mascots still use the imagery. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes recently issued an opinion paper on racism and mascots in Idaho schools, which opposes the use of “Indians,” “Savages” or “Redskins” as mascots in schools.
Edmo said the use of these mascots is unacceptable and only contributes to harmful misconceptions of Native Americans.
“They are not honoring us,” she said. “It is disrespectful and they have no clue about our real culture about how things are done. (The mascots) promote Hollywood stereotypical culture.”
Because of movies, stereotypical mascots, and media reports focusing only on poverty on Indian reservations, Simpson said many people in the United States think of indigenous people as historical figures instead of modern people contributing to society in myriad ways. She said lots of people assume the majority of indigenous people are tucked away on reservations far from large cities, when in reality 70% of Native Americans live in urban areas.
“We’ve relegated indigenous people to these monoliths of the past where there’s only teepees and powwows and beads and feathers, but we’re now doctors and lawyers and teachers and architects and in manufacturing jobs,” she said. “We are everywhere in the community, not only walking in a Western white world, but we’re holding onto our culture as well. That’s the adage of walking in two worlds as indigenous people.”
Simpson graduated high school on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation outside of Lewiston, but has lived in Boise for years. Even though she is away from the reservation, she has formed a community with other indigenous people who live in the area from other tribes, both from within Idaho and outside of the state.
Being in the city, she said many indigenous people get assimilated into the broader community, and you can lose aspects of your tribal culture, like not celebrating birthdays as a larger community. Because of this, Simpson and others have come together to form an intertribal group to support each other.
Simpson said a big part of working on planning the Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration is recognizing the indigenous people who came before her and the struggles they overcame and to pave the way for future generations to succeed.
“It was the deliberate slaughter of an entire nation of people over land and resources,” Simpson said, about the conquest of the United States and the displacement of her ancestors. “There were some of them that survived, and they survived so I can be here. And I have to survive and be here so there are future generations who can do this work. Hopefully they don’t ever have to do this work, and they can just thrive.”