Monthly Archives: June 2015

Minidoka and Topaz

J&I made a road trip of a visit to the Denver National Archives this month. Across the Great Basin and back.

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We traveled by way of the Topaz and Minidoka camp sites, where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Both camps are desert places. They can be farmed with irrigation, but not easily. Especially not Topaz.

Here are some images from the Topaz site. Topaz Museum director Jane Beckwith said the word spelled out in barbed wire was added, without permission, by antiwar activists who visited the site around 2003. It’s now part of the site’s history, hence left in place.

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Jane Beckwith said the 2003 activist group also placed an antiwar message on the flag at the Topaz camp entry site. Markers in that area include an honor roll for the Nisei soldiers of Millard County, Utah — the county that includes the Topaz camp site. Clearly the flag part of the protest offended some people.

Already it’s possible to look back at 2003 and say, that was in another time.

Her story reminded me of the mood at the 2002 Tule Lake Pilgrimage. To be clear, the Tule Lake Pilgrimage is always carefully authorized and pre-planned, and the 2002 event was no exception. But the 2002 Tule Lake Pilgrimage was full of marked, anxious, edgy focus on current events and current civil liberties concerns, giving such concerns almost as much emphasis as the past wartime camp history. Tule Lake events in more recent years have been a great deal more focused on history and memory, though always with a wary, well-informed sense for current tendencies toward scapegoating in the name of security.

Here is the soldiers’ marker at Topaz. There is a larger similar marker at Minidoka. There isn’t one (that I know of) at Tule Lake, although Tule Lake was a scene of some enlistments as well as refusals to enlist.

It remains remarkable that some young men agreed to go to war on behalf of a country that was imprisoning their families. It remains remarkable that some young men took the risk of refusing to go to war because their country was imprisoning their families. There will be more conversations about these choices for generations to come.

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Sites of former buildings at Topaz are marked now mainly by concrete and stone remnants of pathways and foundations. Even rocks have to be imported to the dusty former lake bed at Topaz. As a lifelong rockhound, Jane Beckwith can identify many of the stones by origin, hence can identify some of the wilderness places in the area where Topaz inmates may have been allowed to visit on hikes or collecting trips. Some of the rocks are very beautiful.

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At the Topaz Museum, which is in the nearest town of Delta, UT:

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A significant art collection there: Chiura Obata, Miné Okubo, and others from the Topaz Art School. Including some of Okubo’s work in a style very different from the cartoon line drawings of Citizen 13660:

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Also at the museum: a facsimile barrack. And a warning about mud. The cracked earth and dust at Topaz turns into awful sticky clay when damp. Jane Beckwith told us that irrigation farmers in the area had to build special drainage systems under their fields because of that mud. You have to scrape it out of your shoe treads with a stick.

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And then, later, J&I visited Minidoka up in Idaho.

In Twin Falls, the nearest big town, we didn’t see signs or tourist materials mentioning the incarceration site. Actually Twin Falls is quieter about Minidoka than the counterpart town of Klamath Falls, Oregon is about Tule Lake. That is saying something: Klamath Falls still isn’t generous with mentions, though it has improved a lot on the subject over the past two decades.

It’s deceptively green on the way to the camp site — one huge irrigated field after another. Grain, potatoes, corn. Bigger fields than at Tule Lake, which is in a fertile, smaller-scale basin where more emphasis has developed on high-maintenance specialty crops. You’d think Minidoka was more forgiving at first glance, but the weather records show a hundred degrees’ variation in temperature in the course of a year. And the superintendent of the Bureau of Reclamation project at Minidoka wrote about the camp site in August 1942: “The dust conditions in and surrounding the settlement are so extreme as to render the area almost uninhabitable.”

This odd juxtaposition of signs appears on the road to the Minidoka camp site, whose formal address during the war was “Hunt, Idaho”. I’m not sure what the wartime incarceration is supposed to have had to do with remnants of the prehistoric ground sloth. But it has been common, when an area’s first historical markers appear regarding Japanese Americans’ incarceration, for them to be placed alongside commemorations on other subjects — as if it feels safer to pad this particular uncomfortable, recent history with other material that’s more emotionally manageable or at least farther in the past. So maybe the prehistoric ground sloths are there as padding.

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There’s sagebrush in the unirrigated areas of the camp site.

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When you park there after a long drive, flies cluster around the dead-bug crud on your front bumper. There’s a 1.6-mile signposted walk around the part of the camp site that’s now under National Park Service management. It’s a parching walk without water.

This is a remnant of Block 22. The building on the right is a barrack. The one on the left might be a mess hall or workshop.

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Around Tule Lake, where we’ve spent more time, you get in the habit of looking for ex-barracks among the outbuildings of older small farmyards. We spotted a few in the general area of Minidoka. Here’s a very likely one, southwest of Twin Falls, Idaho. The main things to look for are the 20-foot interior diameter and the frequent small square windows.

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The space in that barrack section might once have been assigned to two families.

An odd thing to see in the rear-view mirror on a country road in America.

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