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The Minidoka Pilgrimage: An American Story for Times Such as These

by Susan Gottshall Associate Executive Director, Communications American Baptist Home Mission Societies
August 2016, Volume 66, Issue 7

This account of the 2016 Minidoka Pilgrimage is dedicated to my good friend, Yosh Nakagawa, with deep gratitude for all he has taught me about being “the other.”

[Reprinted from original article at www.abhms.org with permission by American Baptist Home Mission Societies.]
 

The gray baseball cap and blue polo shirt were rather unremarkable, but the white Kleenex spoke a thousand words.

Seated a few rows in front of me during the opening session of the Minidoka Pilgrimage, the anonymous everyman sat by himself in the full auditorium, dabbing the tears dotting his cheeks. I saw him only from behind, but even so, his overflowing emotions following the documentary “Children of the Camps” quietly revealed so much of the story the pilgrimage had to tell—silence, pain and a deep need for healing and hope.

About 250 people participated in the late June journey, traveling by bus, plane and car to Twin Falls, Idaho, near the Minidoka [concentration] camp where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Many pilgrims had lived in the camp as children; others, descendants of those incarcerated, came to honor the memory of family members who were imprisoned here, one of 10 remote incarceration sites established by the United States government in seven western states.

All told, the government implemented a mass incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans on the U.S. West Coast from 1942 through 1945, after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor when wartime hysteria was at an all-time high. More than half of those imprisoned were children who are now adults, still struggling with the shame and injustice their government visited upon them.

One of those children, Janet Powell of Mount Vernon, WA, gave voice to a sentiment that echoed throughout the four-day gathering: “This is the first time I have started talking about this, because it’s so terrible to me to talk about it.”

After the war, the Japanese immigrants who were incarcerated never spoke about the years of imprisonment with their children, leaving that generation—and the generations that would follow them—with a significant part of their heritage shrouded in silence, secrecy and mystery.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D.—“Children of the Camps” producer and a licensed marriage and family therapist who was born in the Tule Lake, CA, prison camp—encouraged participants in her opening remarks to share their stories, reminding them that the pilgrimage provided “safe space.”

Stories tumbled out of memory. Some were the evocative and impressionistic recollections of children struggling to grasp new external and internal landscapes. Others were sharp, as if fine-tuned through binoculars focused across decades.

Lilly Kodama, who journeyed from Seattle’s Bainbridge Island to Twin Falls, was seven years old when FBI agents came to her house and took away her father, leaving her mother with four small children and a farm to care for. Kodama spoke with clarity about her confusion at the FBI’s intrusion into her home and family. Others who watched their fathers being taken away remembered the fear of not knowing where the patriarchs were going or when the family might see them again.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942 gave Japanese Americans just a few weeks’ notice to prepare for leaving their homes, their jobs and businesses—with no idea of where they were going or when they would return. They could take only what they could carry in one suitcase.

In many areas of the West Coast, the government first corralled them in temporary camps such as fairgrounds, where they lived in stables smelling of urine, because the previous inhabitants had been animals. When permanent camps were ready, trains—with blackout curtains in the windows so travelers couldn’t reveal location information to the enemy—transported Japanese Americans to the wartime camps.

During the pilgrimage, we spent one morning at the Minidoka camp, now a national historic site under development by the U.S. National Park Service. Minidoka was a small city during the war years, surrounded by seven miles of barbed wire fence at one point, with a peak population that approached 10,000. Dusty, dry and arid land, which yielded sagebrush and not much more, was cleared by the imprisoned Japanese Americans, who made the camp self-sufficient in food production in 1944.

Memories came fast and furious at the site. Pilgrims remembered the numbers assigned to the tarpaper-covered barracks buildings where they lived. They told stories of using wooden crates to create vanities. They spoke of the food in communal dining halls and remembered shower and bathroom facilities with no privacy. All mail, outgoing and incoming, they recalled, was reviewed by War Relocation Authority (WRA) personnel who often blacked out portions of correspondence.

The impact of Executive Order 9066 shattered the lives of the imprisoned Japanese and Japanese Americans, ripping from them their homes, livelihoods and families in some cases, not to mention denying their dignity and civil rights. This sweeping arc of injustice was perpetrated by a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Clearly for some people, but not others.