By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
In a photo from the 2023 pilgrimage to what was Minidoka Internment Center in Idaho, former incarcerees stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, hands on their hearts. They are all senior citizens now. One of them wears a red, white, and blue shirt emblazoned with the United States flag. There was never any doubt as to their loyalty to our nation, and yet the U.S. government did doubt, and in 1942 sent almost 13,000 people of Japanese ancestry to Minidoka. Over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in total were incarcerated around the country.
Minidoka was called an internment center, but it was a concentration camp. The Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee, who organizes and hosts a trip to what is now the Minidoka Internment National Monument, prefers to call those sent there incarcerees. Adults and children, some born at the camp, some married at the camp, were kept there for approximately three years. A large number came from the Pacific Northwest. Pilgrims today come from all over.
This year was the first pilgrimage since the pandemic. On July 6 to 9, 22 former incarcerees, volunteers, committee members, and families of these and other former incarcerees participated in the pilgrimage. This year, the experience of visiting the camp was made even more heart-wrenching by the encroaching threat of the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to build Lava Ridge Wind Farm. Much of the former area of the camp has already been taken up by agriculture. Now, the integrity of that physical space, which allows visitors to understand what incarcerees went through, could be irrevocably altered by the presence of wind turbines.
Committee co-chair Erin Shigaki provided a statement: “Having just completed our first in- person Minidoka Pilgrimage in four years, we continue to unequivocally oppose any and all of the Lava Ridge Wind Farm options. The National Park Service and partners have carefully built and maintained a space for all Americans to learn from. This is land made sacred by us: Japanese Americans who return to it to ask questions, to commune with our ancestors, to celebrate their strength, to grieve and to heal. This is land that should not be diminished or erased.”
The Weekly talked to volunteer Emily Yoshioka about the threatening construction: “The wind farm project is such a complicated proposal. As a young person, [I’m] incredibly concerned about climate change and the impact it’s going to have on everyone for the rest of our lives. But at the same time, the wind farm proposal as it stands, it’s just disrespectful to the experiences that my family went through, the experiences of so many families. As a younger person who’s getting involved with pilgrimage, I want the site to be preserved, too.”
Yoshioka first took the pilgrimage to Minidoka in 2015 with her grandmother. Three of her grandparents were incarcerated there. This year, she attended as a student fellow, one of the volunteers who assists with logistics and planning and also on-the-ground. Yoshioka grew up in Skyway hearing about her grandparents’ time at Minidoka. All three were youngsters when incarcerated, so their memories were of a different vein than the adults around them. For Yoshioka, the pilgrimage provides a larger picture of what life was like at Minidoka.
“Being able to…physically see and feel what it was like to be in one of the barracks…there were several families who lived in that one space…but had no privacy. Thinking about the public latrines…the environmental conditions were so harsh…seeing the physical space was really impactful, but then [so was] hearing from other survivors and [about] other experiences.”
One thing that stuck with Yoshioka this year was listening to survivors born in the camp, whose parents were from the Pacific Northwest, and who decided not to return upon release. They moved to other parts of the country, maybe the Midwest. Wherever they went, the life they had built prior to incarceration was destroyed. They returned to racism fed by the creation of the camps that made it hard to find a job. Yet many former incarcerees did re-establish a strong community in their chosen neighborhoods. This chance at success for successive generations is built in part upon the healing a pilgrimage to an incarceration site like Minidoka can provide.
Ana Tanaka, another student fellow on this year’s pilgrimage, told the Weekly that what stood out to her during this July’s pilgrimage “was the closing ceremony where folks from the Crow Nation held a smudging ceremony in which sage was burned and the survivors had a chance to blow the smoke of the sage in their face as an act of healing. The act of intergenerational healing is something I had never experienced nor thought was a possibility before that day.”
Tanaka’s grandparents on her father’s side were both incarcerated at Minidoka and her grandmother on her mother’s side was born in Minidoka.
“I’ve learned about the camps through classes at the University of Washington and have talked to my grandparents a little about their experience, but have always wanted to step onto the grounds myself.” Tanaka recommends the pilgrimage “to anyone and especially descendants of folks who were incarcerated.” Unlike Yoshioka, she did not have a chance to attend with a grandparent. As the years pass, this opportunity diminishes.
“I wish I could have gone with my grandparents because the intergenerational experience is unlike anything else. Going with hundreds of other people with a similar story is also just so comforting in a space that holds so much grief (and shame, for some). The pilgrimage is a process of healing and reclamation that I will forever be thankful for.”
In addition to activities facilitated by the park service, the Committee plans time for pilgrims to share, such as a legacy talk and the closing ceremony with a panel of survivors.
“It’s very much a community effort,” said Committee co-chair Stephen Kitajo. “The origin of the pilgrimage is a group of volunteers putting together a reunion…community members that got together with an idea they put into action…They recognized the need…as far as the healing it provided, the memories people began sharing in that environment that they never shared anywhere else…their own kids will be saying, ‘You never told us about that.’ It’s those memories that come from being physically there again and feeling the same feelings they felt 75 or 80 years ago.”
The Lava Ridge Wind Farm project could break ground by 2024. Extensions to community comment and other processes have delayed the decision so far. As part of the efforts to circumvent the wind farm project, Friends of Minidoka in Idaho are calling for Minidoka to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places: www.minidoka.org/lava-ridge.
For information on future pilgrimages or Minidoka Pilgrimage Committee’s action related to Lava Ridge Wind Farm, go to www.minidokapilgrimage.org.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.