Inside Idaho’s Campaign to Include Indigenous History in Its Highway Markers

Native leaders and scholars are advising the State Historic Preservation Office’s landmark decolonization project

Alexander Ross highway historical marker in Idaho
The updated sign will state that Scottish fur trader Alexander Ross "mapped" or "encountered" Galena Summit. Courtesy of MacArthur "Mac" Eld / Idaho Transportation Department / Idaho State Historic Preservation Office

Idaho’s highways are home to more than 240 markers detailing the state’s rich history. Installed largely between 1956 and 1986, these signs were written without input from the region’s Indigenous inhabitants—a trend that the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) is now striving to reverse. As Tony Tekaroniake Evans reports for High Country News, the government agency is working closely with local Native American tribes to decolonize the markers’ content and make them more inclusive.

The initiative’s goal, says SHPO deputy Tricia Canaday, “is to rebalance Idaho’s roadside history with an Indigenous perspective and thereby create a more culturally sensitive and historically accurate picture of the past.”

According to High Country News, the state’s historical markers reflect the concept of terra nullius, or “land belonging to no one.” European settlers used this doctrine to displace Native American tribes without providing compensation or signing treaties. By crediting white explorers like Lewis and Clark and Alexander Ross with “discovering” land already occupied by Indigenous peoples, the Idaho signs perpetuate a European-centric narrative.

“It’s an example of erasure,” Evans tells Scott Tong of WBUR’s “Here & Now.” “... The settler colonial mentality right up until the [1950s] and ’60s was to privilege European explorers in the telling of the history of the region.”

Historical highway marker for the University of Idaho
Historical highway marker for the University of Idaho Jimmy Emerson, DVM, via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To help rectify this oversight, Canaday is teaming up with leaders from two of Idaho’s five federally recognized Indigenous tribes: the Shoshone-Bannock and the Nez Perce. (The Shoshone-Paiute, Kootenai and Coeur d’Alene nations have not yet responded to Canaday’s consultation request.) Nolan Brown, an original territories researcher with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Language and Cultural Preservation Department, is among the Native scholars working with Canaday to rewrite the state’s signs.

“Our major purpose is to educate tribal members and the public and build awareness about the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ history and continued presence in all of our original territories,” Brown tells High Country News.

So far, Brown and his staff have rewritten 27 historical markers that the Idaho Transportation Department deemed ready for replacement due to their weathered condition. One such example is Historical Marker 302 on Highway 75 at Galena Summit, a mountain pass located about 180 miles east of state capital Boise.

Previously, the sign proclaimed that Ross, a Scottish fur trader and explorer, and his entourage “discovered” the summit overlooking the Salmon River in 1824 while hunting for beaver. The marker suggests that the group traversed “mostly ... unexplored land” during their time in the area. In actuality, the land was already occupied; the sign’s new verbiage will reflect this by stating that Ross and his group either “mapped” or “encountered” the summit.

“[Ross] was a pioneering spirit, and he was very accomplished in the fur trade, but he was following [old Indian] trails the entire way,” Evans tells “Here & Now.”

Archival photo of historical highway marker
Archival photo of a historical highway marker detailing the Lewis and Clark expedition Idaho State Archives

The Scottish explorer, for his part, admitted that he wasn’t the first person to set foot on the land in his 1856 memoir. As Evans noted for Idaho Mountain Express in 2011, Ross wrote:

It appeared to us probably that no human being had ever trodden in that path before. But we were soon undeceived, for we had not been many hours there before my people, going about their horses, found a pheasant (grouse) with a fresh arrow in it and not yet dead. So, at the moment we were indulging in such an idea, the Indians might have been within 50 yards of us!

State historian emeritus Merle Wells authored the majority of Idaho’s first 244 historical markers, leading the program between its launch in 1956 and his retirement in 1986, reported Mychel Matthews for Magic Valley in 2017. Speaking with fellow historian William E. Tydeman in 1996, Wells said he and his colleagues viewed the signs as “an opportunity for popular interpretation. ... My part of that whole thing was basically site identification and accurate interpretation.”

In addition to changing the verbiage of existing signs like number 302, Canaday, tribal leaders, and Idaho’s current state archaeologist and state historian plan to include new information about traditional campsites, homesites, fisheries, trails and battle sites that are important to the region’s Native history.

“We are trying to look critically at the stories we are putting out there,” Canaday tells High Country News.

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