Czechs and Vietnamese come to Idaho
Founded by those fleeing persecution in other lands, the United States has been the destination for millions of immigrants over its short history. Some come in search of better opportunities, others for a chance at survival. But all leave behind homes, family and memories. This oral gallery attempts to capture some of their stories … in their own words.
The oral history department of the Idaho State Historical Society Research Library chose to use this audio opportunity to offer stories from two of the less prominent ethnic groups in Idaho. First, during the 1980s, Dr. James Gentry and Kathy Vitek interviewed immigrants (and their children) from Czechoslovakia who came to live in southcentral Idaho; these men and women told stories that range in time from the late 19th Century through their (then) current thoughts about life in Idaho and the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Gentry and Vitek called this project, “Czechoslavakian Culture in the Buhl-Castleford Area,” and Gentry wrote an article by the same name for the Winter 1987 issue of Idaho Yesterdays.
In the late 1980s, current ISHS staffer Kathy Hodges, who interviewed former Old Pen guards for our first audio endeavor for Idaho Issues Online (Spring 2005) as part of her master’s thesis, talked to Vietnamese refugees and others. She recorded five of these narrators — including Molly O’Shea who worked at the time at The Refugee Center — and recently donated them to the ISHS Research Library. [Note: Hodges’ thesis can be found at the ISHS Research Library, as well as Boise State’s Albertsons Library.]
The Czechs arrived in Idaho at the turn of the 20th Century and the Vietnamese came about 75 years later, but in some ways their immigrant experiences were comparable. Their experiences are grouped into four categories: Coming to America, coming to Idaho; New Language, New Culture; Retaining Native Culture: Social Groups and Ways; and The New Americans, or Idaho Immigrants: The Next Generation.
Coming to America, coming to Idaho
For the most part, the immigrants from both groups did not immigrate directly to Idaho; they all spent time in the U.S. before eventually finding the Gem State. When they came to Idaho, Frank Sedivy and Alma Schooler and Son Dam had a variety of opinions of America and Idaho, which they shared through oral history.
New language, new culture
All the immigrants interviewed for both projects were asked about the challenges entering a new country (specifically a new state within it), including learning a new language and adapting to a new culture. Leonard Pospisil and Marie Cejka shared their memories about this idea: Pospisil described how after WWII one aspect of Czech culture, dancing, diminished, and Cejka remembered her first Christmas. Molly O'Shea offered her thoughts of The Refugee Center.
Retaining native culture, social groups and ways
We clipped comments from five narrators from both collections to highlight how these groups tried to retain their native culture. Thomas Novacek offered his memories of the fraternal life insurance organization, the ZCBJ (Zapadni Ceska Braterska Jednota). And Schooler described one specific traditional dance. Hung Van Tran also talked about a specific dance, a Vietnamese folk dance captured in the 1980s by the local news media. Finally, O’Shea provided her opinion on the Vietnamese community in Boise.
The New Americans, or Idaho Immigrants
The Next Generation: Four immigrants—two from each group—are quoted here as they opined on the changes in their native cultures that arise when their children grow up, including their thoughts on the American educational system and retention (or lack thereof) of the native language. We offered education-specific comments from Chinh Vu; we furnished comments on language and culture from Ella Kudlac and Vlasta Novacek .
Troy Reeves, ISHS oral historian, has worked hard to implement the tenets of the Idaho Oral History Center: gather, preserve and provide access to, and educate about oral history. He hopes he has accomplished more in that arena than he has in trying to make his backyard—located next to a cow pasture in Northwest Boise—less weed friendly. Reeves would like to (again) acknowledge ISHS staffer Kathy Hodges for her work gathering and preserving Idaho history.