A ‘Diverting’ Look at Manzanar

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New documentary will place WWII camp in larger context of site’s history.

A scene from Ann Kaneko’s “Manzanar, Diverted.”

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Participants in the Manzanar Pilgrimage this Saturday will have an opportunity to see “Manzanar, Diverted,” a work-in-progress by filmmaker Ann Kaneko, from 8 to 9:30 p.m. (after Manzanar At Dusk) at the Museum of Western Film History, 701 S. Main St. in Lone Pine.

The director describes the documentary as “a fresh interpretation of the Japanese American concentration camp by examining the political history and environmental justice issues behind it — the takeover of Native lands by settler colonialists and the struggle for water and power.”

The film includes interviews with Kathy Bancroft, Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation officer, who will attend the screening; Henry Nishi, former incarceree and son of the landscaper of Merritt Park (a community garden at Manzanar); Jane Wehrey, former National Park Service ranger and Manzanar historian; Gann Matsuda of the Manzanar Committee; and members of the Eastern California Museum in Independence.

Kaneko’s parents were incarcerated in the two War Relocation Authority camps in Arkansas — Rohwer and Jerome — and she visited Manzanar a number of times with her parents while growing up in Los Angeles.

“I couldn’t quite picture how this quiet place had been a ‘camp,’ which always seemed like such a bustling place of human interaction, according to my parents’ descriptions,” she recalled. “I never questioned how or why this dusty, remote desert at the foothills of the Sierras became home for over 10,000 Japanese Americans. Of all places, why here?

Ann Kaneko

“Asked to be part of a team of UC Irvine and UC Riverside scholars studying how the Manzanar Pilgrimage functioned as a sacred gathering for different diasporic communities, I attended the 2015 pilgrimage with this group. I was tasked with making a film and was given freedom to decide what this might be.”

Kaneko explained how “Manzanar, Diverted” got started. “I always vaguely knew about the connections between Native lands and the different camps, so I wanted to explore this more. I also was determined to find another way to look at the camps. There have been so many films and videos made already, I felt strongly that there had to be a different approach to justify making another film.”

Bancroft’s stories provided a wealth of information. “I go back to Native American displacement by settler colonialists in the 1800s. An important date is 1863, when Native Americans from the Owens Valley were driven to Fort Tejon — a California ‘Trail of Tears.’ She recounts her great-grandmother’s displacement and return to the area. Then the film moves into more recent histories of white settlers. I have learned more about implications of the state in repeated cases of environmental racism and forced removal.”

In the course of her research, Kaneko was “dumbfounded” to find out that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power owned over 90 percent of the Owens Valley. “As an L.A. native, I knew that much of our water came from the Sierras, but I didn’t fully realize that L.A. owned the land and water rights of such an enormous parcel of land that was the watershed for the L.A. Aqueduct. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know this.

“Water, which made this a rich homeland for Native Americans, was also the reason it was desirable to the LADWP. It was hard to fathom how this municipal entity held title to so much property in Inyo Country, outside of the city’s boundaries. Now I understood why the Owens Valley was so untouched and dry — it wasn’t just a happy accident that it remained undeveloped.

“Through the story of LADWP’s monopolization of the Owens Valley, I began to understand why Manzanar, ‘the camp,’ was situated where it was and how Manzanar, ‘the site,’ held the legacy of so many intersecting stories of injustice, starting with the Shoshone and Paiute who had been driven out of their homeland, to the white settlers who were bought out by the LADWP through underhanded land deals, and the bloody ‘Water Wars’ that ensued when farmers and ranchers rebelled when they saw their valley drying up.”

Noting that the two WRA camps in Arizona — Poston and Gila River — were located on Indian reservations, Kaneko said she was intrigued by the Japanese American-Native American connection during World War II:

“Interestingly, it was the LADWP who suggested to the federal government to explore Poston. They didn’t want a camp on DWP land and had been looking at the Colorado River as a source of water for Los Angeles. One of the requirements for establishing a camp was the resource of water so that internees could grow food and make the camp self-sustaining. Poston and Manzanar had this in common.

“The connections at Poston and Gila River are much more evident than Manzanar. The fact that Poston was resettled by Native ‘colonists’ after the war is a strange irony. There are no photos of Natives at Manzanar like at Poston. Manzanar was different since DWP wanted its land back after the camp closed.”

Kaneko, who learned from her mother that many staff people in the camps came from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, added, “I didn’t realize the extent to which the U.S. government must have equated Japanese American incarceration with the way it managed Native Americans and reservation lands. At Manzanar, half of the administration came from the BIA, formerly the Office of Indian Affairs, and Roy Nash, who was the project director for a time, had worked with the BIA.”

Another connection was Dillon S. Myer, who was both director of the WRA (1942-1946) and commissioner of the BIA (1950-1953), as noted in Richard Drinnon’s 1987 book “Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism.”

Through her research, Kaneko also found that “there are many others who have been trying to unify these different stories for many decades. [Manzanar Committee co-founder] Sue Embrey was always respectful of the Native Americans who she knew originally resided on this land and made an effort to include them in discussions around the establishment of the historic site. In recent years, the fight against LADWP’s plans to establish solar farms near Manzanar brought many of these interest groups together — Native Americans, environmentalists and members of the Manzanar Committee.

“I wanted to share my experiences uncovering this story and my desire to introduce it to the larger Manzanar community. Through this film, I hope to bridge communities that have often stayed separate, making us all more aware of the enormous amount of work to be done fighting continued social and environmental injustice. Manzanar is a story that resonates strongly today in our current fight for self-determination and resources.

“As I read about the Native American fight against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline that could potentially contaminate drinking water and disturb what have been considered sacred tribal lands, I think of how familiar these stories are and that however we identify ourselves, we must help to fight corporations and governmental agencies that have little regard for the environment or its people.

“I hope that through the reframing of the Manzanar historical legacy, viewers can connect with our own responsibilities in this ongoing battle to understand and be vigilant in the face of continued struggles.”

Kaneko has explored Nikkei issues in other films, including the 2012 documentary “A Flicker in Eternity” (co-directed by Sharon Yamato), the story of Stanley Hayami, a teenager who was detained with his family at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. He joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and was killed in action, but the diary, letters and drawings he left behind made it possible to tell the aspiring writer/artist’s story in his own words.

“Against the Grain” (2008) is about Peruvian artists. “One of them is Japanese (actually Okinawan) Peruvian, who talks about his experiences as a son of immigrants and the experience of being Japanese Peruvian with the backlash against former president Alberto Fujimori,” Kaneko said.

“Overstay” (1998) is about undocumented workers in Japan. “I was curious about their experiences as I thought about my own grandparents’ experiences,” Kaneko said.

Another work-in-progress screening of “Manzanar, Diverted” was held on April 14 at the Association of Asian American Studies Annual Meeting in Portland, Ore. To see a clip, visit www.annkaneko.com.

To donate to the project, tax-deductible contributions can be sent to Milton Liu at Visual Communications, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. Make checks out to Visual Communications and write “Manzanar, Diverted” on the memo line. For more information, call (213) 680-4462 or email [email protected]

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