The Idaho Federal Lands Interim Committee, tasked with figuring out ways for the state to acquire or control federal lands, heard from representatives of three Idaho tribes this week. The tribes oppose state control of federal land and argued that if the state is deeded any federal lands, they should be handed back to their original owners. In this essay, fourth generation, returned Idahoan Gens Johnson, reflects on the place of public lands in protecting Idaho’s landscape and the historical justice in the tribes’ claims on those lands. — Eds.

I suspect it is deep, historical memory, something epigenetic that started when my great-grandparents homesteaded in Eastern Idaho beginning in 1883 on land that was until then, home to Native Americans. They eventually developed one of the first dry farms along the Snake.

My family history describes how those Swedish immigrants built a two-room log cabin near the village of Poplar near the Snake River:

It was hard, grueling, manual labor shaping the wilderness into a home. Many times they were frightened by Indians who found it hard to accustom themselves to people who sought to entrench themselves in a more or less permanent place, working man, woman and child, to build their home. Luckily blood was not shed, as Annie and Charles were both kind to them and did not fear them as greatly as others did. One day, returning with water, Annie found the house full of Indians and the children terrified and weeping, but she soon had everything in order.

The family history goes on, describing how my great-grandparents and my grandparents were integral in “civilizing” the area; active in the construction of the road into Swan Valley and helping to build irrigation canals with mules and horses. And then there was the combination of drought and Depression, and the family left farming for some unknown promise in Portland, Oregon.

The Homesteaders

via Gens Johnson
Annie Ceria and Charles Carl Gustav Mattson, the writer’s homesteading ancestors.

My ancestors were not truly of this beautiful place, despite the years of hard work they put into the land after arriving. I came to Idaho almost 20 years ago now and have experienced every corner of the Gem State in both work and play, the awesome landscapes through the seasons. There is so much to love. Yet I do not feel truly of this stunning land either. I am an interloper, as were my forefathers.

Don’t get me wrong; I respect the hard work of those immigrant settlers and take pride in my pioneer heritage. I’m relieved that none of “my people” were part of a United States that embraced slavery. I don’t feel responsible for those horrible injustices. With a sigh of relief, I declare, “I am not a Daughter of the American Revolution!”

Instead, I feel a responsibility, through the generations, for the destruction of the Native American way of life in Idaho. It was my people who arrived and presumed ownership of lands inhabited by others. My people hunted the game, fished the river, cleared the land, established a monoculture ecosystem, diverted the waters and chased the tribe onto a reservation. My people destroyed a way of life that had existed for thousands of years.

This week, Helo Hancock, legislative director of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, addressed the Idaho Legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee about the prospect of Idaho trying to take title to federal public lands within the state. Another version of the story from the Idaho Statesman, with slightly different version of Hancock quote.He said, as quoted at Eye on Boise, “If the federal government is going to transfer title to any lands, they should be transferred back to their rightful owner, which would be Indian tribes.”

This sentiment resonates with me. It feels just.

As it is now, the federal lands in Idaho are, in theory, accessible to all. A big chunk of Idaho’s economy is built around the use of federal lands for recreation, and for grazing. The federal payroll in Idaho tied to managing these lands is significant. A seldom recognized benefit of federal ecosystem management of the headwaters lands is that we have clean rivers. These are all things that might not remain, should title to these lands change.

I have not heard any of the tribes ask for these huge tracts of land to become their sole responsibility. In fact, their testimony this week was in opposition to Idaho’s very notion of seizing federal land. The cost of management would be overwhelming for the tribes, with the ecosystem changed over time. Heck, the State of Idaho, cannot even afford to take over management of these lands.

But it is interesting to think about how we might go about righting the guileless wrongs of our ambitious, hard-working, pioneer forefathers. Would returning these “public lands” to their original owners serve justice? What is fair retribution for that naïve invasion that swept the Native American way of life aside?

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • TS

    Thanks for the post. Your immigrant family from Sweden were probably themselves conquered people dislocated by invasion and war. I suspect they were converts following God to the West. Their God-fearing peasant lifestyle has fared no better than native traditions. In Idaho, where Bannocks displaced Shoshonean people who had muscled out their predecessors in Columbus’s time, no one group or ethnicity dominates very long.