THROUGH THE FIRE: Minidoka on My Mind

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By SHARON YAMATO

I never knew much about Minidoka except that it was one of the ten incarceration sites. Unlike Manzanar, Poston and Heart Mountain, few people from L.A. were incarcerated there, so I guess that’s why I never paid much attention to it. I’m sure people from Portland, Seattle and Alaska who once filled its 400-plus barracks would be chagrined by my ignorance.

Therefore, I felt it important to attend the 2018 Minidoka Pilgrimage as a means of penance and education. Little did I know that the camp with the unusual Indian name (also known as the Hunt camp) would be haunting me ever since.

I knew Minidoka was somewhere in the vicinity of Idaho and Utah—two states close to California but far enough from any tourist spots to offer any reason to drive by its desolate locale. Like other camps, it was in the middle of nowhere (50 miles from Twin Falls, Idaho) on desert land, freezing cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. The government didn’t choose these dreadful places for no reason.

The first thing I learned was that Bainbridge Island detainees, the very first people to be forcibly removed and sent to Manzanar, asked to be transferred to Minidoka to be close to all their Seattle neighbors, a more agrarian bunch than those tough citified folks from L.A. Other interesting facts about Minidoka were that it held the highest number of people who answered “yes-yes” to the loyalty questionnaire, yet there were nearly 40 men imprisoned there who formally resisted the draft.

However, by far the most fascinating story about Minidoka was told by University of Washington professor Mira Shimabukuro, who researched and wrote a book chronicling the Mothers Society of Minidoka, a group of more than 100 women who signed a petition protesting the drafting of their sons into the military. It’s the first time I’d heard about resistance by none other than a group of Issei women. Shimabukuro’s “Relocating Authority” addresses this intriguing subject in greater detail, and I can’t wait to read it.

The Minidoka Pilgrimage was an event skillfully organized for 15 years by an enthusiastic cadre of young and old committee members along with able assistance from the Friends of Minidoka in partnership with the National Park Service. Apparently, Minidoka was designated a national monument in 2001 and became a national historic site in 2008. This latter designation has allowed Minidoka to become second only to Manzanar in getting federal funds to improve the interpretive value of the site.

It has already preserved many of the existing structures and built many new ones, including a magnificent baseball field — a reminder that this camp produced both the Hunt Center All-Stars that defeated the Hunt Military Police to move into the Idaho State Semi-Pro Tournament, as well as the winning Hunt High School Wolverines.

My introduction to Minidoka has brought other kinds of pleasant surprises. At this year’s pilgrimage, I had the joy of meeting Jamie Ford, the author of “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” a book (and hopefully soon-to-be-film and musical) that has become popular for its telling of the camp story for a mass audience—many of whom knew nothing about the subject before the 2009 book appeared. Hailing from Ashland, Oregon, Ford has a unique relationship to Minidoka, a setting in his book, and has attended the Minidoka Pilgrimage several times over the years.

It was heartwarming to see this hapa Chinese American writer so warmly greeted by the 200-plus pilgrims, and equally amazing to see how sincerely dedicated he was to keeping the incarceration story alive — especially at a time when civil liberties and basic human rights are again being challenged not only for Muslim Americans but for immigrant children and their parents.

From left: Ryan Kozu, Jamie Ford, Erin Shigaki, Chanda Ishisaka and Eugene Tagawa in front of the reconstructed Minidoka guard tower.

By pure coincidence, a week ago I conducted an interview with poet/activist writer Mitsuye Yamada, now 95 years old, whose “Camp Notes” captured all the poignancy and tragedy of being incarcerated at Minidoka when it was published nearly 50 years ago. Meeting her after my having just returned from the pilgrimage to the camp where she and her mother and brothers spent over a year was amazingly serendipitous. As she talked about returning to Minidoka way back in the ’80s, she was pleased to learn of the many recent improvements to the site — including the restoration of the unique rock garden at its entry. Working on a new book, Yamada had an amazingly active mind full of unforgettable insights and memories.

The preservation of this camp can be attributed to the hard work of many people, including National Park Service’s Anna Tamura, who I was privileged enough to join on her personally guided tour. As I heard stories about uncovering the original stones around the entrance to interpreting the rock garden built by a former incarceree, I could see how her dedication transformed this barren and dusty land into a site of conscience and remembrance.

Many others followed in Tamura’s footsteps, including NPS’ Hanako Wakatsuki and Carol Ash, as well as Friends of Minidoka executive director Mia Russell, who together wrote the hot-off-the-press book “Minidoka National Historic Site” (Images of America), released on Aug. 6. I also owe a personal debt of gratitude to Alan Momohara, a Friends of Minidoka leader, who graciously greeted all us non-descendants of the Idaho camp with open arms.

Which leads me to my final discovery about Minidoka: it had the most welcoming, inclusive and festive group of people ever. I was struck by how a celebratory mood was created by both young and old, including 80-something-year-old Fujiko Gardner, who rocked the night away leading a young group of pilgrims in carefully choreographed moves from Obon to line dancing. A gathering of all ages was brought together out of tragedy but joined in celebration of community.

Next year marks the opening of the brand new interpretive center, which — whether you had family confined there or not — is reason enough to attend the 2019 Minidoka Pilgrimage. I personally guarantee you will learn a lot and make wonderful new community friends.

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Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected] The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected] 

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