Big Foot stands 7 feet tall in painted concrete at the city of Parma’s replica fort. His fist raised in anger, his torso splattered in scarlet, he was the terror of the Oregon Trail, according to historical markers. Parma historians say he was half African and half Cherokee with gleaming teeth and kinky hair. Some claim his rampage began after a Christian maiden spurned his marriage proposal. Some say he swung from the gallows at the end of a rope in Nevada. Others say he died in a shootout and that bone handles for pistols were carved from his murderous skull.
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No matter that Big Foot never existed. Few natives are left to protest historical markers that dot the Old Oregon Highway. Fables are reprinted as facts.
Two hundred miles away, the Oregon Trail branched south and climbed toward the Albion Mountains. A stone monument near City of Rocks marks an 1861 Indian ambush. Allegedly, says the inscription, 250 pioneers perished. No matter that it never happened. Racial vilification drives frontier morality plays.
Racial violence was once a topic too impolite for Idaho textbooks. Leonard Arrington’s History of Idaho, published in 1994, grinds on for 961 pages without mention of Jim Crow race repression or the governor who slurred Asians as “rats.” Idaho appears “tolerant” and well adjusted to ethnic diversification. Neo-Nazis were dismissed as California transplants. Pocatello’s Ballet Folklorico was cited as proof that Idahoans had come to embrace festive people of color as a permanent part of the colorblind state.
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Woodworth-Ney & SmoakThese essays tell other stories. Historian Jill Gill of Boise State University, who guest edited this race collection, documents an Idaho-Dixie resistance to civil rights legislation. So tight was the Dixie alliance that Idaho’s William Borah stood strong with the South’s reluctance to prosecute vigilante hate crimes. Idahoans mostly sided with Dixie again in resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When Aryan nationalists, a decade later, transplanted their church to Kootenai County, supremacists plowed fertile ground. Still the extremism tarnished Idaho’s reputation. Spokane reporter Bill Morlin, herein, defends good-hearted Kootenai County but concedes the state could do much more to educate about the importance of human rights.
In the fourth-whitest state in the Union, increasingly Hispanic, the colorlines are twisted with strands of religion, class and immigration status. For Hispanics, now nearly 16 percent of Idaho’s K-12 population, learning English often means a seat in the back of the classroom, says Boise State’s Claudia Peralta. Yet Hispanics, mostly Mexicans, now comprise nearly 16 percent of Idaho’s K-12 population. If encouraged to sit in silence, rewarded for being complacent, public schooling will stagnate and Idaho will fall short of its state-mandated goal for 60 percent post-secondary education. Keith Anderson, an expert of diversity training, stresses the need for teachers of color who understand coded language, race issues and self-esteem. Positive role models help. Priscilla Wegars’ historical essay features Asians who managed to prosper despite racial aggression. Historian Errol Jones, in closing, traces the story of race prejudice back to the farm camps where Mexican migrants led formative political battles for fair housing and civil rights.
Idahoans need more than fables of Big Foot. This Winter 2014 print issue of The Blue Review probes deep into the politics and power of race.
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.