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Know the West

The importance of being seen

Recognition affects the preservation of culture, land and political agency.


'Family,' by Greg A. Robinson, a member of the Chinook Indian Nation in Washington and a primarily self-taught artist who works in a variety of mediums. His traditional Chinookan-style images pay tribute to the Columbia River ancestors for whom art, life, stories and culture are strongly interrelated.
Illustration by Greg A. Robinson

That arresting image on our cover — Family, by Chinook Nation tribal member and artist Greg A. Robinson — is an apt illustration for our story about the Chinook Nation’s century-long battle for federal recognition. Anna V. Smith, assistant editor on our Indigenous Affairs desk, delves into a saga that has lasted for generations, during which elders have passed on and children grown up. Without their sovereignty, the Chinook still work to preserve their distinctive culture in the Pacific Northwest. But living without the safety net, health care, education or land held by the 574 recognized tribes isn’t easy. It is, said one, a form of “slow-motion genocide.”

The desire to be seen for who you are is one of several threads running through this issue. With anti-trans legislation popping up across the country, two spirit and trans activists and advocates are fighting hate legislation in Montana. Intern Surya Milner tells a heartening story of what happens when people step up to own their political agency.

In Albuquerque, a different group of activists is fighting to highlight — and remove — the racist language that lurks in New Mexico property deeds. Intern Wufei Yu reviewed nearly a dozen property records and found that a third of them still barred Asian and African Americans from owning property. Racist restrictions on land ownership still haunt the West today.

Katherine Lanpher, interim editor-in-chief

Emily Benson, the associate editor for our North Desk, strapped on her snowshoes to get some of the interviews for our second feature story this month. (Yes, I was jealous. Look at the powder in those photos!) In the small resort town of McCall, in west-central Idaho, she met people on all sides of a land-swap dispute that could put tens of thousands of acres into the hands of a single investment firm. What’s at stake is bigger than McCall, however: The territory in question, which many locals thought was public land, is actually state-owned “endowment land,” which, by law, must be managed to fund schools and other institutions. Such state trust lands are common throughout the West, and, in the case of McCall, the developer is arguing that, paradoxically, the best way to preserve public access to the land is to develop part of it — and thereby fund a park. Whatever happens in McCall could have implications for other Western communities.

I’m circling back to that powerful image on our cover, showing strong arms protecting a family. It expresses how I feel about my time as interim editor-in-chief at High Country News: My goal was to preserve and protect the magazine you love until the next caretaker came along. So this is my last note to you, dear readers. I thank you for your patience. May you be seen, may you survive, may you thrive.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.