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Update on Tulelake Municipal Airstrip Dispute

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The road leading to the entrance of Tulelake Airport with Abalone Hill in the background. (Photo by Martha Nakagawa)

By BARBARA TAKEI

It has been over a year since the Tule Lake Committee filed a civil rights complaint in federal court to stop the sale of the Tulelake Municipal Airstrip to an entity that vows to expand aviation activities on the site.

This rural airstrip occupies two-thirds of the residential area of the Tule Lake concentration camp, where 27,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly imprisoned during WWII. It is hallowed ground, where hundreds of Japanese Americans died from illness, harsh conditions, and despair.

In July 2018, the city of Tulelake disposed of the 359-acre Tulelake Airstrip, giving the property to the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma for the token sum of $17,500. The Tule Lake Committee offered $40,000, more than twice the named price, an offer that was ignored. Given multiple irregularities in the transaction, the committee filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, Tule Lake Committee v. City of Tulelake, et. al., to challenge the transfer.

In September 2018, our case went before a U.S. magistrate judge for discussion of voluntary settlement. The magistrate judge foresaw litigation in our case continuing for decades, in a drain of time and money for all parties.

The judge recognized that the only long-term solution was to move the airport to another location, and directed the Tule Lake Committee to obtain evidence that the federal government would accept the airport property for preservation purposes.

For most of the past year, you have heard little about this litigation because the Tule Lake Committee was silenced by sealing orders on our case. We were also prohibited from issuing press releases or making public comments on our case while we sought needed evidence.

At the same time, we fought what we see as interference from the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma and its lawyers. Despite the interference, we obtained evidence from past and present government officials, and we are prepared to challenge the airport giveaway.

While we hope to work with leaders of the Oklahoma Modoc to diversify and benefit the region’s economy, the tribe’s leaders gained acceptance in self-proclaimed “white man’s country” by working against us, promising to develop aviation there. Such activity is incompatible with preservation and will desecrate the one-half square mile of airstrip land where our families lived and died during WWII.

The Oklahoma Tribe says their goal is returning to their ancestral homeland, a 5,000-square-mile area, but their fixation on destroying the one parcel important to Japanese Americans remains a mystery. Equally bewildering, the Oklahoma Modoc have chosen to ally with farmers, irrigators and ranchers who want government-subsidized water, and are working against the Klamath Basin’s indigenous people whose goal is protecting and restoring ancestral habitat and sacred endangered fish. Like rival tribes who scouted for colonial U.S. Army units a century earlier, leaders of the Oklahoma Modoc are allying themselves with white adversaries to undermine other Native Americans.

The Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma is the smallest tribe in Oklahoma, with fewer than 300 enrolled members. Yet, tribal leaders dis-enrolled a four-generation family of 15 members, banishing the family to punish a member who questioned the Oklahoma Modoc’s “rent-a-tribe” business model. That model includes use of tribal sovereignty to avoid compliance with state laws that regulate predatory payday loans and use of tribal status to help government contractors avoid or minimize competitive bidding requirements. (For more on the Oklahoma Modoc’s involvement in the payday loan business, see Netflix’s “Dirty Money,” Episode 2, “Payday.”)

In late September 2019, the gag orders were lifted by the U.S. district judge, and since then, we have awaited a ruling in our civil rights lawsuit. Once the judge issues an order in Tule Lake Committee v. City of Tulelake, et. al., our lawyers can move ahead and begin preparation for trial.

At the same time, the Tule Lake Committee has been fighting in federal court to stop the city of Tulelake’s sale of the Tulelake Airstrip, the committee continues its effort to stop Modoc County and the FAA from developing the Tulelake Airstrip, to prevent the site’s destruction with a three-mile-long, eight-foot-high fence.

Tulelake’s airstrip development has been universally opposed by the Japanese American community, with over 45,000 individual Japanese Americans, organizations and supporters writing to the FAA and Modoc County to express opposition to the proposed security fence for the airstrip.

All have urged that the Tulelake Airstrip be relocated because a sacred historic site where more than 27,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned — and where 331 men, women and children died — cannot be moved.

After the Tule Lake Committee filed two legal petitions (2014, 2017) seeking compliance, Modoc County has assumed its obligation to study historic, cultural and environmental resources before any fence construction can begin. However, the study will only include property along the proposed three-mile-long fence line, rather than consideration of the entire 359-acre historic site.

Once the pending study is completed in spring 2020, we will have an opportunity to review and comment on the study’s deficiencies.

Had we remained silent in 2014, the fence would have been built in 2015. Japanese American community advocacy was essential in stopping the fence, which would have destroyed the Tule Lake site.

To protect and preserve Tule Lake for future generations, we must persist. You can help by sending a donation to help support our litigation. And, when when we ask you to sign petitions and send letters to tell Modoc County and the FAA about Tule Lake’s importance, your actions do matter.

Thank you for your continued vigilance.

For more information or to make a donation, visit www.tulelake.org.

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