Decolonizing Idaho’s road signs

A new effort will add Indigenous history to historical markers across the state.


In September of 1824, a Scottish schoolteacher turned fur trapper made his way to a mountain summit overlooking the awe-inspiring Sawtooth Valley near present-day Sun Valley, Idaho. Historical Marker 302 on Highway 75 at Galena Summit now commemorates the moment when Alexander Ross and his entourage first stood at the spot above the headwaters of the Salmon River. The sign proclaims that Ross “discovered” the summit before spending another month traveling “mostly through unexplored land.”

The notion that Ross “discovered” any place that had not already been well traveled by Native Americans strikes Idaho State Historic Preservation Office Deputy Tricia Canaday as absurd. “Of course, Indigenous groups had been traversing that route for millennia,” she said. Canaday has taken on the monumental task of working with Idaho’s five tribes to revise many of the 290 signs in the states’ historical marker system, and possibly add new signs.

The initiative’s stated goal, Canaday said, 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. Each state in the U.S. appears to have its own standards and protocols for reviewing highway marker language, she said, and her office is in charge of Idaho’s. As a result, Ross may soon be known for having “mapped” or “encountered” Galena Summit, rather than discovering it, Canaday said. That might seem like a small success, but it’s just one piece in a wider mosaic that could transform Idaho’s roadside history for generations to come.

“Of course, Indigenous groups had been traversing that route for millennia.”

Leading this effort alongside Canaday are tribal officials like Nolan Brown, an original territories researcher at the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Language and Cultural Preservation Department at the Fort Hall Reservation. The revision of highway markers is now part of his job, which since 2017 has included the creation of new interpretive signs and exhibits around the state related to his community. “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 said.

In mid-October, an empty frame is all that’s visible of Historical Marker 302 at the Galena Summit near Sun Valley, Idaho.
Roland Lane/High Country News

That original territory is vast and includes the land traversed by Ross when he first came through what is now known as Blaine County. Brown’s strategic approach is part of the Language and Culture Department’s ongoing effort to identify relationships with the Northwestern Band of Shoshone, Shoshone-Paiutes and others, such as the tribes of the Boise Valley. New sign information could include hunting and gathering rights guaranteed by treaties, as well as details about historic sites like Map Rock, a large boulder in the Snake River Canyon near Boise that features elaborate petroglyphs created by the ancestors of the local Shoshone or Paiute nations, as well as the Lemhi Reservation near Salmon, Idaho, which was abandoned during a forced march known as the “Lemhi Trail of Tears” in 1907. The markers could also include information about traditional campsites, homesites, original fisheries, original trails and battle sites.

Brown’s staff at the Language and Culture Department addressed the first group of 27 highway markers that the Idaho Transportation Department had proposed for replacement due to their declining condition. The tribes plan to update five of these with completely new narratives. Others simply need revising. “A few signs like those at Lava Hot Springs, the Salmon River and others we are eager to help rewrite,” Brown said, adding that he and his staff are enthusiastic about the work and the opportunity to “provide the tribal perspective and history that was previously lacking.” The Salmon River sign, Number 292, states that Lewis and Clark “discovered” the river. It makes no mention of the Native people who took salmon for thousands of years on the river, nor of how the Shoshone-Bannock have worked for decades to save endangered Sawtooth sockeye salmon from extinction.

All 290 of Idaho’s signs were installed in the 1950s without Native input, often reflecting the terra nullius, or “vacant land” concept held by those who settled in the wake of the Doctrine of Discovery, which had been used for centuries to entitle European Christian immigrants to lands in North America under international law. But even Ross was under no illusion that he was the first person to see the Sawtooth Valley, although for a spell he seems to have hoped he was looking out upon a new Garden of Eden.

“It appeared to us probably that no human being had ever trodden in that path before,” he wrote in his memoirs in 1856. “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 fifty yards of us!”

“We are trying to look critically at the stories we are putting out there.”

The histories of the state’s Indigenous nations, long ignored by both state education policies and highway signs, may soon find a place where the rubber hits the road in Idaho, thanks to tribal representatives and historians. The process is only just beginning and could take years, Canaday said. What pieces of history could get displaced in favor of others on the signs will depend on space constraints, Canaday said. “There are strict word counts allowed on each sign,” she said. Canaday said the project to revise highway markers, which has received $700,000 in funding, would follow input from the state archaeologist and state historian, as well as the tribes. “We are trying to look critically at the stories we are putting out there,” she said. The Shoshone-Paiute, Kootenai and Coeur d’Alene nations have yet to respond to her request for consultation.

Among those Canaday has met with is Nakia Williamson-Cloud, the cultural resources program director for the Nez Perce Tribe. Situated to the north of Shoshone-Bannock territory, the Nez Perce are now based between the Snake and Clearwater rivers, but, as with most if not all tribal nations, they once had far more expansive territories that now compete with modern place names and historical narratives. In early July, Canaday and Williamson-Cloud had a three-hour meeting in Lapwai, on the Nez Perce Reservation, where they sifted through highway marker language and reviewed Williamson-Cloud’s initial advice on revisions and historical errors and omissions. As a result, one big change could be the inclusion of Nez Perce or Nimiipuu language on some signs. “Nakia knew the Nez Perce names for all the places up there,” Canaday said. Williamson-Cloud reportedly took interest in the Buffalo Pit highway marker, Number 370, near Elk City, which commemorates a hydraulic gold mine operation that tore away a hillside to get at the riches underneath. “Nakia said that stretch of the river has been called ‘muddy water’ in the Nez Perce language ever since,” Canaday said. “We are considering adding that language to the sign because, from our perspective, it is an interesting historical notation to make.”

This long-overdue enterprise began with a suggestion from Marsha VanDeGrift, a Boise resident who was picnicking in 2019 with her husband near Historical Marker Number 75, which details the “Ward Massacre.” The sign commemorates an 1854 attack on the Alexander Ward party that brought military retaliation and the closure of the Hudson’s Bay Company posts at Fort Boise and Fort Hall. It was part of a wider conflict in the region that became known as the Snake War.

The Ward Massacre sign states that only two young boys survived the attack and that “eight years of Indian terror followed.” VanDeGrift contacted the state offices and found them willing to consider changes. “I didn’t want my kids or grandkids to ever read such a one-sided description of an event,” VanDeGrift said. Soon, thanks to the work of Canaday, Williamson-Cloud, Brown and others, they may not have to — at least not in Idaho.    

Tony Tekaroniake Evans is an award-winning journalist and author living in Hailey, Idaho, and a citizen of the Mohawk Nation.

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