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Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Idaho: a brief history

The Treasure Valley, and even the whole state of Idaho, is filled with the contributions and impact of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Credit: Idaho State Historical Archives

BOISE, Idaho — This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press. 

In May 1887, a group of Chinese miners based in Lewiston sailed 65 miles upstream on the Snake River. 

They camped in Hells Canyon, hoping to find gold and escape anti-Chinese sentiment, according to History.com. But a gang of seven white horse thieves murdered all of the laborers, 31 to 34 men. 

Three of the thieves fled after one of them confessed and agreed to testify against the group. But despite the testimony, an Oregon jury declared the group not guilty. 

The area, now known as Chinese Massacre Cove, contains a granite memorial. 

“No one was held accountable,” the memorial said. 

The Gem State, like many western states, has a troubling past with anti-Asian sentiment. 

For example, Idaho took part in incarcerating Japanese-Americans in Minidoka during World War II. 

Even today, some Asian-Americans have said they experienced anti-Asian hate in Idaho, though others say they haven’t. 

But the Treasure Valley, and even the whole state, is filled with the contributions and impact of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

For example, the Owyhee Mountains that many residents see every day from Interstate 84 are named after Hawaiians. Owyhee and Hawaii are two different spellings for the same word, according to the Idaho State Historical Society, an example of how Idaho history and culture are tied to Asian American and Pacific Islander history and culture. 

“Their contributions to society, their contributions to all facets of life, fashion, food, culture, the arts, is so influential, historically and currently that it is good to celebrate,” said Palina Louangketh, a former refugee from Laos. 

Louangketh is also an adjunct faculty member at Boise State University and the executive director and founder of the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora. 

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander month, so the Idaho Press has put together a (non-exhaustive) look at the history of AAPI people in the Gem State. 

Cars rumbled past the Chinese Odd Fellows Building on a recent Monday, one of the last surviving remnants of what was once a sizable Chinatown in downtown Boise. 

The building, rectangular with a solid red overhang, sits directly across from the parking lot of Trader Joe’s, Mod Pizza, Chipotle and Panda Express near the corner of Capitol Boulevard and Front Street. Behind the half-opened blinds on the first story is what appears to be a conference room. 

“Front Street west of Seventh, the core of Chinatown, was cleared for urban renewal in the 1960s,” according to an Idaho State Historical Society inventory sheet. 

Other buildings in Chinatown included the “very attractive” Moon Wahsoon building, according to the inventory sheet. 

Boise also surrounds Garden City, named for the gardens raised by Chinese immigrants living in the area. The name of Chinden Boulevard, which runs through, is a combination of the words China and Garden. 

As of 2021, 1.6% of Idahoans identified as Asian alone and .2% identified as Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

But by 1870, Asian people made up almost 30% of the Idaho territory’s population. 

In the 1860s, gold discoveries began drawing Chinese people to Idaho as miners or support services, according to the University of Idaho. Many later worked on railroads, though others were in professions like medicine or hospitality. 

Pierce, Placerville and Idaho City, all early boom towns, had large Chinese populations, according to a 2006 Idaho State Historical Society newsletter. 

By the 1890s, Japanese people started coming to Idaho, mainly working in railroads and agriculture, according to the University of Idaho. A Filipino boy attended school in Boise in 1902. 

The discoveries of gold began pulling people from Asia, though mostly from China. However, there was also a push out of China. 

The British had brought their global capitalism to China which disrupted local traditions and land ownership systems, said Jeff Kyong-McClain, director of the Idaho Asia Institute and associate professor of history at the University of Idaho. 

Many Chinese people sought after America not necessarily as a new place to live but as a different place to earn some money with new economic possibilities. 

Because of the Civil War, the 14th Amendment gave American-born individuals citizenship. More Asian people started giving birth on U.S. soil, and others started to view the United States as not just a place to work but as a place to stay. 

“You get at that moment a transition,” Kyong-McClain said. “This is now their home, they’re not going back to China, they’re not going back to Japan. You really get more even clearly, this creation of an Asian American identity.” 

Since she moved to Idaho in 2012, Meichun Lin has seen more and more Asian people. Lin, a committee member for the Idaho Chinese Organization, said it’s important to recognize AAPI month because Idaho embraces all different cultures. 

“Our kids, this is going to be their home. Because for me probably, this is my second home because I am a first generation immigrant,” Lin said. 

Lin, who moved from China’s Guangdong province, was surprised to find when she moved here that Chinese people were early pioneers in the state. 

“A lot of the Chinese people, they’re from my hometown, the Cantonese area,” Lin said. “I was just shocked that my ancestors actually lived here long before many other people.” 

The history of Chinese people should be taught in schools, Lin said. 

A stain on the state’s history 

Asian and Asian American people have faced racist sentiments and laws, both nationally and in the state. 

In 1890, some Chinese individuals in the Elk City mining district sued white claim jumpers who “forced them off their Moose Creek workings,” according to the Lewiston Tribune. The Chinese individuals had purchased the claims years before but an Idaho judge ruled “Chinese have no rights” on mining lands in the United States. 

In 1891, the first legislature of the new State of Idaho prohibited people who were Chinese but not born in the United States from buying or owning property. 

In the 1890s, a Chinese man died near the summit of a mountain near Pocatello. Until 2001, the mountain was referred to as by a racist slur. Today, it’s called Chinese Peak. 

But discrimination was not limited to just Chinese people. 

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. The order authorized the detention of Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. The camps often had poor conditions. The federal government has since apologized. 

Though many Idahoans are aware of the Minidoka War Relocation Center, the Gem State actually had another internment camp known as the Kooskia Internment Camp. 

This lesser-known detention facility was unique in that its inmates volunteered to go live there and received wages for working, according to the University of Idaho. Most of the internees worked on constructing part of Highway 12 between Lewiston and Missoula, Montana. 

Many Japanese-Americans in Minidoka were from Seattle and Bainbridge Island, Washington, and Alaska, California, and Oregon, according to Friends of Minidoka, a nonprofit that works on historic preservation. 

At its peak, the center’s population was over 9,300, making it the state’s eighth-largest city. 

Around 1,000 people interned in the center enlisted in the military, and 73 soldiers whose families were incarcerated at Minidoka died fighting for the United States. The families, because they were interned, could not attend the funerals. 

Katie Niemann, president of the Boise Valley Japanese American Citizens League, is a third-generation Japanese American Citizens League president. She was born and raised in Boise. 

Her grandmother was incarcerated in Minidoka at age 16 and resettled eventually in Idaho after she got out, Niemann said. Her grandmother had brothers that fought in the war, but she stayed at camp with her parents. 

“She never talked about it,” Niemann said. 

A lot of people don't realize that Japanese internment happened in Idaho, she said. 

"It did happen and it could still happen if we’re not careful,” Niemann said. “We just have to be vigilant and watch out for everybody’s rights.” 

After the camps, many Japanese individuals faced discrimination, including Niemann’s grandmother. 

Her grandmother resettled in the Caldwell area, and would have to find Asian hairstylists to do her hair. A lot of banks wouldn’t bank with Asian individuals, Niemann said. 

There are still things Niemann would like to see in Boise, like a Japanese town, but she’s optimistic for the future. 

“I feel like Boise is growing and so is the Asian American population,” Niemann said. “I think the opportunities for Asian Americans will grow in Boise as the population gets bigger. I think that’s really exciting.” 

'A sense of community' 

Many early Asian immigrants helped build Idaho, and more recent Asian Idahoans have contributed to the culture and economy of the state. Some, like the three Asian women who have served in the state Legislature, have contributed to politics and government. 

These people range from Louangketh, the former refugee from Laos who started the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora to Yvonne Shen, a 14-year-old Boisean who started the Idaho Asian American Pacific Islander Youth Alliance. 

For Louangketh, part of celebrating heritage is preserving culture. 

She left Laos in November 1979 and arrived in Boise in October 1981. In the intermediary years, she was in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. Louangketh started kindergarten in Boise. 

“In comparison to the other more Asian-populated states … growing up in Idaho Asian, it was unique because there weren’t a lot of diversity,” Louangketh said. “We were then such a rural state. It just felt a little bit isolated.” 

Louangketh’s only connections to other Asians were within her own refugee Asian community, including people from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. The Lao community, a few hundred strong, is very close and has its own Buddhist temple and cultural center in Nampa. 

Over the years, there’s been more diversity, she said, and more access to cultural resources. 

But there’s still room for improvement, for example when it comes to diverse restaurants. 

“We’re still growing,” Louangketh said. “Food is huge. People need to be able to connect with their cultural foods. It provides that level of comfort.” 

Yvonne Shen's parents are from Shanghai. The couple immigrated to the United States in the early 2000s after her dad got a job at Micron. 

“For me, growing up, especially in Boise, there is a sense of community within specifically Chinese people,” Shen said. “That’s just how I’ve been raised — we had parties where everyone would come together, eat food, so within our community, it’s been a very positive experience.” 

It hasn’t been all good though. Growing up, Shen would feel self-conscious because her homemade lunches smelled differently than other kid’s food. And at the beginning of the pandemic, she experienced verbal racism. 

But Shen has been able to make a difference in the community, holding protests and vigils when anti-Asian hate crimes started to rise. 

“Being Asian is part of your identity,” Shen said. “Heritage month is just a way for us to recognize that and celebrate it.” 

This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press. Read more at IdahoPress.com 

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