MOSCOW, Idaho – A part of Idaho history and Japanese American heritage is being unearthed this summer outside of the town of Kooskia, Idaho, and the University of Idaho shared it on July 20 during a public outreach event at Three Rivers Resort in Lowell, Idaho.
Stacey Camp, UI assistant professor of anthropology, is leading an archaeological field study at Northern Idaho’s Kooskia Internment Camp, where Japanese Americans were held during World War II.
“We’ve found a lot of interesting items in the camp that really help tell the story of the people interned here,” said Camp. “It’s that story we want to share with the public.”
Camp and her team of faculty, graduate and undergraduate researchers are conducting archaeological research to better understand the personal lives and struggles of the internees at Kooskia. So far they have found a number of interesting artifacts, including Japanese export porcelain, gaming pieces, and artwork.
Research at Kooskia began in the summer of 2010. Camp and her team completed excavation from June 24 to July 22. The unearthed history was made available to the public during the outreach event.
Visitors had the opportunity to attend an archaeological site visit and a show-and-tell of artifacts from the camp. There were also educational activities for children.
Following the outbreak of war with Japan, more than 120,000 individuals of Japanese heritage were forced to leave their homes and live to camps spread through the western United States. Idaho played a crucial role, being home to two camps: Kooskia, operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the much larger Minidoka, operated by the War Relocation Authority.
Between May 1943 and 1945, 256 male internees occupied Kooskia, which was built on the site of a former federal prison work camp. These “enemy aliens” of Japanese ancestry — legal residents barred from citizenship because of their race — came mostly from 21 states and two U.S. territories, but others were from Mexico and some were even kidnapped from Panama and Peru.
Two internee doctors, an Italian and later a German, provided medical services; 25 Caucasian employees included several women; and a Japanese American man censored the mail.
Internees were tasked with completing the construction of Highway U.S. 12 connecting Idaho and Montana. Kooskia marked the government’s first attempt to use internees as a work force.
Priscilla Wegars, volunteer curator of the University of Idaho’s Asian American Comparative Collection, has written a book about the camp, “Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp.” She says that internees at other camps volunteered for transfer to Kooskia and earned wages for helping build the Lewis-Clark Highway, as it was called at the time, supervised by U.S. Bureau of Public Roads employees.
Most of the internees were construction workers, operating heavy equipment or laboring with picks and shovels. According to Wegars, they found this area of the Idaho wilderness to be a welcome change from the barbed wire of the Santa Fe Internment Camp and other places where they were previously confined.
She quoted Yoshito Kadotani, a landscape gardener from Santa Cruz, as calling it “a paradise in mountains … It reminds me so much of Yosemite National Park.”
Knowledge of their rights under the 1929 Geneva Convention empowered the Kooskia internees to successfully challenge administrative mistreatment, thereby regaining much of the self-respect they had lost by being unjustly interned, Wegars says.