Our Complex Past

A Look at Human Rights in Idaho

Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise, Idaho, 2003. Courtesy of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center.


Human rights belong to every human being. Human rights are universal and embody basic standards of human dignity. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes that each of us has the right to live, and to live in freedom and safety. Further, the declaration states that human rights are independent of our gender, our skin color, our language, our beliefs, our religion, our economic status, and our nationality. Human rights belong to all of us, without exception.

Idaho State Seal.

The Idaho state seal displays a scale of justice. Be thinking about that promise of fair and equal treatment. You be the judge. How well has Idaho done? How well are we doing now to ensure human rights for all of our residents?

Idaho’s Cultural Heritage

As part of Idaho’s centennial celebration in 1990, the Idaho Legislature commissioned a new and comprehensive history of the state. The noted historian Leonard Arrington wrote that for thousands of years the land that would become Idaho was the homeland of aboriginal peoples. By 1860 diverse peoples from many cultures had moved into Idaho. This pluralism, or lack of a common culture, resulted in a general tolerance for different faiths and values and a respect for individual differences. Put another way, Idaho’s modern history began out of a mix of many different cultures, traditions, ethnic backgrounds, and perspectives.1, 2

Racism has existed in the West just as it has in the rest of America. Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick wrote that racism in the West was complicated: Were Indians better than blacks? Were Mexicans essentially Indians? Were the Japanese more tolerable than the Chinese? Were “mongrel” races worse than pure races?3

The West was an important meeting ground, the point where Indian America, Latin America, Anglo-America, Afro-America, and Asia intersected. Historian Limerick writes that Western history is full of ongoing competition for the right to claim Western resources for oneself and one’s group. This intersection of ethnic diversity with property and resource rights is a recurring theme in Idaho history, one that continues today.4


FOOTNOTES: 1- Arrington, Leonard J., History of Idaho, Volume I, University of Idaho Press, Idaho State Historical Society, 1989, pp. 252-54. 2- Ibid., p. 255. 3- Limerick, Patricia Nelson, The Legacy of Conquest, the Unbroken Past of the American West, Norton, 1987, p. 260. 4- Arrington, p. 27