It was Saturday evening and I was sitting at home with not much left to do. I could dive into household chores. I probably should dive into household chores.
Or, I thought, I could go geocaching…
Well, of course, my favorite hobby won out over doing laundry.
When I hopped into the Jeep I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but as I drove to the edge of town I remembered being told about the Minidoka War Relocation Camp near Twin Falls. With something of such historical significance so close to my new home it seemed absurd not to visit it, right? And besides. Places like that were crawling with geocaches.
I stopped at the informational signboard and read the blurb about the thousands of Japanese-Americans interned at the camp. But as this point, my main objective was still geocaching. Sure, I was interested in the camp. I’m a nerd. And it’s important to know our history well, including the dark spots because it’s the only way we’ll stop it from happening again.
The drive down “Hunt Road” toward the camp was quiet and soothing to the soul. I marveled at the beauty of the canal which ran alongside the road. The water was blue in the evening sun and the current fast, at places whipping itself into whitewater. Little did I know that I had just entered the Garden of Gethsemane and was about to begin walking the Way of the Cross with Jesus in this little ghost town in the high desert.
The sky was blue. The sun was hot. The water looked inviting. I wanted to jump in and float the current. I wished I had my kayak so that I could paddle through those small rapids. There were no cars on the highway. There was only peace and quiet and gentleness. And then I saw this:
Something in my soul shifted.
Had I really came to this hallowed ground to play a game? When so many other feet had stood in this same spot–but not for games and not for play?
I had been caught sleeping.
I had been lulled to sleep by the beauty of the place.
I had been caught sleeping, but now I was awake.
The buildings are built from lava rock which exists in abundance in the high desert. It is everywhere. Here, all else has fallen away. Torn down by human hands or by the elements–all that remains is this building made of rocks.
A dingy room. What was it?
A fireplace standing cold and empty.
How many frightened Japanese-Americans had tried to warm themselves by that fireplace?
My legs began to tremble. I know that here, in this place, at these rocks, Jesus had thrown himself down in agonizing prayer:
“Let this cup pass from me…”
Betrayed, Judged, and Condemned
The number is different depending on what source you look at. Some say 10,000. Some say 9,000. Some say 13,000.
Thousands of Japanese Americans interned here.
I stop and read the placards.
I think about the names.
Japanese surnames. But so many of the first names are “American.”
How long had they lived on this soil before that Executive Order was signed?
How many hopes and dreams and ambitions had been harbored in all those vast places up and down the West Coast?
How much hurt and anger and rage did they feel when those bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor?
How many rushed to sign up? To add their name to the list of those who would fight to defend their homeland?
But the betrayal came.
Their names didn’t sound quite right. The color of their skin not the right shade. It didn’t matter that as a “Frank” or a “Tom” they were as American as anyone else… as “Nakamura” or “Eto” they celebrated a connection to something America feared and distrusted in that moment.
And so they were brought here.
Under armed guard.
They did not want to be here, but they were taken from the lush green places of the Washington State and Oregon coasts and they were brought here, to the barren, dusty desert–to tar-paper barracks with nothing more than what they could carry with them.
Betrayed by the people they had desired to live amongst and to love and to be a part of.
I look at that list as if I want to burn each name into my memory and never forget them. The ones who died for this country even though this country and told them they didn’t trust them, didn’t want them, and locked them away.
They died for their Judas.
I am all alone in this place.
Normally the sounds of the desert are overwhelming–it is anything but silent. There is the rattle of the wind blowing through the dry grasses, the high-pitched singing of the insects, the screech of birds on the hunt. And all of that is with me in this place, but all I can hear is the crunching of the fine gravel under my feet as I take one step after another.
I am keenly aware of my movements as the rhythmic crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch tells the world I am on the move.
The sun is shining down on me, but I wonder why. It doesn’t seem like the sun should shine on a place like this.
The path begins by following the barbed-wire fence along the perimeter of the camp. I turn and look behind me and see the guard tower standing above the desert…
They were told they were simply being “relocated”, but they knew the truth. The president–their president–the president many of them undoubtedly voted for–he had signed an Order which banned them from the place they called home.
Their neighbors watched as the military men came and took them away.
Their communities saw their homes standing empty, lights once shining in the darkness now extinguished.
The people they had worked for, lived beside, done favors for, been kind to, laughed with– they had all denied them.
“I don’t know this person!”
Over and over again, in the dark night of this nation’s soul, an endless stream of voices can be heard:
I don’t know this person.
A nation of Peters warming themselves by the fire in the darkness of a long night.
Scourged and Taking Up The Cross
There are voice recordings at some of the stations.
I push the button and wait patiently as the scratchy recording qeues up.
The voices are much older now than they would’ve been when they had been brought to Minidoka. These are voices of people who know that what was done to them was wrong, but there is a resilience, a contemplative introspection in their stories.
This cross they bear is not their choice, but they hoist it on their shoulders and they push forward to a place they don’t want to go.
They go for a lot of reasons.
They go because they know physical resistance would mean bloodshed.
They go because they will do anything they must to keep their families together–to keep their children with them, to keep their spouses close by.
There will be a time for protests. There will be a time to fight and to appeal. But for now they carry this cross into the desert.
They toil the dusty earth to grow their own food. When the farms nearby begin to fret about how they will meet their labor demands in a time of war, these prisoners stolen away from their homes, with their crosses on their shoulders, go and offer their bodies to labor in the fields, to grow the food, to harvest the things their persecutors need to survive.
Iwonder what I would do. I wonder if I would be so willing to lend a helping hand to the very people who said they feared my freedom. Would I just sit down in protest and refuse to budge? How would I respond with wounds still fresh on my heart and soul? Would I put my hand in the air and say, “Yes, let me help the ones who put me here”?
Maybe it’s because they never lost sight of who they are–this unique blend of Japanese heritage and American customs.
While so much threatens to disrupt who they are, they steadfastly hold their identity close.
They don’t let rejection by the country they’ve come to call home cause them to lose that part of who they are. They play baseball to sweat out the grief. They dig a swimming hole where their children can play safely. They come together to work as lifeguards to preserve one another. They take their children to Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts meetings in their tarpaper buildings. They join together to worship on Sunday mornings. They refuse to let the Americans who saw them as less-than define who they are.
They are American. And they are Japanese.
They remember this. Together, they remind each other daily.
Come what may, the roots are still there… just waiting for a shoot to begin growing from it again. And so they nurture the roots…
And they carry their cross into the desert and offer their bodies to the very people who have rejected them.
Mary and John Find Each Other
Though they may share a heritage, they are very different. They are strangers. But they lift each other up. They become one another’s helpers.
I don’t think I ever really appreciated what Jesus was doing when he introduced Mary and John to each other from the cross. But standing in the shadows of the few remaining buildings of Minidoka, I can’t help but understand a little bit better.
In hardship, they would be very vulnerable alone. They would never survive. But together they will have a shoulder to lean upon, someone to wipe away tears. Someone to remind them how to laugh and love and live in fullness even in the most difficult moments.
Here in this camp they are finding each other. Marys and Johns, mere strangers, find each other to make this hard life a bit more bearable. They support each other. They share with each other. They weep together. They mourn together.
But they come together and make a community in a place where guard towers stand in silhoette to the setting sun. They make a community in a place encircled by barbed wire where men with rifles walk steady patrol.
They find each other and they hold each other up.
I don’t think I’d ever heard of them… and so I read the information about them with a heavy heart.
Will they serve? Will they swear allegiance?
A loyalty test some 12,000 internees would fail.
Those who fail are once again plucked from the life they were making for themselves in these distant and hard camps and carried off to far places where they would be kept as “segregees” in maximum security. Isolated even further from their people, their cuture, their way of life.
For those who answered “correctly”, who didn’t qualify their allegiance and willingness, who didn’t protest–they banded together. Even from this prison camp designed to separate them from their American neighbors, they form USO clubs, they serve the war effort.
When permitted, some of their young men would take up arms, don the uniform of the men who had brought them here under duress, and venture off into the same war.
Some would not return.
Laid in the Tomb
I’ve come full-circle now. I’m back to the starting point. I stand next to the list of names of those who served–a simple sign of gratitude. I read about the garden of hope they kept at the gate of the place of imprisonment. A garden in defiance of what is being done to them. A garden of life in a place of death.
I’m looking across the street at the guard tower and the remains of the police station and visitors building–by now the sun is setting and beautiful bright colors are painting the horizon in a breathtaking display of God’s creation. The lava rock is black against that backdrop. And it looks like a tomb.
The air feels heavy now.
The sound of my crunching steps has ceased.
The insects have settled.
Even the wind is not blowing.
The dry grass does not rattle.
There is silence as I stand in the shadows of a world growing dark.
My heart feels as if it is breaking. The only words I can think to speak are words of desperation, of prayer:
“My God, what did we do?”
I stand for a long time in the shadows, watching darkness creep over the ruins of this place.
My God, what did we do?
Suddenly, from somewhere to my left, I hear the call of not one bird, but what sounds like a hundred. I turn to look and see them, sweeping back and forth through the air, delighting in the final feast of the day before night falls. They are rising up and circling about and calling to one another.
Their song is all I can hear.
And here, in this place so far away from my own home–in this place where I have come by choice, but where so many before me were brought by force–in this place heavy with memory and shame and grief, I hear the call of birds and am reminded of one of my favorite songs. A song which has reminded me throughout my life of my home–no matter where I am. When I hear Hazel Dicken’s distinctive voice begin singing the familiar refrain, my soul bursts with hope…
And in the song of those birds swooping to the earth and back into the sky I hear Hazel’s refrain:
In the dead of the night,
In the still and the quiet,
I slip away like a bird in flight,
Back to those hills,
To the place I call home.
I breathe a deep breath.
Even in the harshest moments of this world, even in this place of worldly shame and grief there is hope.
There is life.
A note to the reader: There is a debate amongst the survivors of War-Time Relocation Camps about the proper terminology to us. Some call if a Relocation Camp while others call it an Internment Camp and still others call it a Concentration Camp. To the people who struggled under these hardships the terminology is important because it expresses a wide range of experiences and emotions. I chose to use the term printed on the material made available at the visitor center, but am keenly aware that this terminology, to many, is too soft. When you hear the tales of the war-time internment, hear not just the words the survivors speak, but also the unspoken emotion lurking under those words. It is only when we truly learn to listen that we will truly understand.
Also, the informational materials available at the camp utilized the words of the survivors, many of these expressing their feelings through various forms of art: literature, painting, poetry, song, etc… Other camps produced other artists, other expressions of hope and pain and survival. Don’t let these words of a white, newly-middle-aged, middle-class woman who wandered into this camp to play a game be the only one you read about Minidoka. Seek out the authentic voices. Here the songs. Let your heart swell with the feeling of the art that broke the shackles of imprisonment and gave new life to an injured people. There is so much to learn.
Thank you, for once again taking us to a place of memories we date not forget.
Thank you for this message. I chose to share it on facebook. So much going on in our country that parallels this history.
Yes there is and that wasn’t lost on me as I walked that path… I pray we will never commit this sin again.
My Father and his family were incarcerated here in WWII. I went back to this place in 1977 with my father when I was on my way to Portland Oregon for college. I watched my father sink to his knees in tears – he was locked in memories I could not share. It broke my heart.
I applaud your exploration and and education on this subject but reject the comparison to it being a Garden of Gethsemane. Although it was a place that tried on’s faith – it was a situation created by hate, ignorance, racism and unconstitutional exertion of the power of the state.
The Japanese have a phrase “Shikata g’nai” meaing “it cant be helped”. Many of those who were wrongfully incarcerated here chose to explain their views on the camps as this: “We all made sacrifices for our country during the war. This was the sacrifice we made for our country”. And these people were called traitors. This country made enemies of people who were not their enemies but rather their most loyal citizens.
My uncle escaped from camp in the west, rode railroad cars to New York and there joined the 442d battalion and fought in Italy and north Africa, risking his life for the country who had taken everything from him and his family and held them in prisoner camps back home. Can you even think of a more patriotic thing for a human being to do? I hope people remember this recent history before making another segment of society into enemies when they are not our enemies. History will teach you. But you have to know it.
Thank you for your beautifully written and thoughtful exploration of Minidoka.