Reclaiming Our Histories at the 2018 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage

August 24, 2018 • Feature, Homepage Feature, In-depth

JACL’s David Inoue (second from left) with members of the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage committee and guests Sec. Norm Mineta and Sen. Alan Simpson (seated) (Photo: Rob Buscher)

Witnessing firsthand the trauma of incarceration while in Wyoming, the writer reveals closure to feelings of guilt and gains new insight for the JA community moving forward.

By Rob Buscher, Contributor

When my younger sister, April, asked me to join her on the 2018 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Although we grew up attending JACL events occasionally with my mother and I have been active in my local Philadelphia chapter for nearly a decade, visiting a former incarceration site had never really crossed my mind.

None of our immediate family were incarcerated because they were able to escape California during the “voluntary evacuation” period. While our family’s sense of injustice over their loss of property, livelihood and community is certainly similar to those who were incarcerated, we lack the connection to a specific place that I suspect motivates most participants to embark on these pilgrimages. Nonetheless, as a historian and community organizer, I decided it was important to witness this place firsthand.

As luck would have it, I had already been saving that weekend on my calendar after learning that the 2018 pilgrimage program titled “IncArceRaTion” would be focusing on aspects of creative storytelling, including music and filmmaking, as a means of maintaining the legacy of those who had been imprisoned at Heart Mountain. Interesting especially given the 2018 JACL National Convention program also revolved heavily around the arts, a hopeful sign of the direction our community is moving in and perhaps an indication of things to come within the Japanese American activist space.

After meeting at Denver airport on July 26 before the two-day pilgrimage programs began on July 28-29, we embarked on an eight-hour car journey to Cody, Wyo. — the nearest town to Heart Mountain. Although nothing can compare to the experience of being packed like cattle into windowless train cars and shipped through the night without food or water to the remote mountainous desert where Heart Mountain is located, the drive gave us time to reflect on the increasingly rural landscape.

As cities became towns and gradually receded into ranges with gaps of 30-40 miles between settlements, the reality of how desolate this region is began to sink in. Surely this was but one of many relative horrors they experienced going to camp, but the thought of urban-dwelling and coastal peoples being forced inland to such a remote place made my stomach turn.

Our pilgrimage began with an entire day of programs located off-site from the former incarceration camp, which were meant to prepare participants for the camp visit on the second day. While I was initially surprised that we would not be spending more time on-site at Heart Mountain, I realized after the fact that the workshops, panels, discussions and performances that first day were a necessary community-building aspect that prepared us for the site visit.

The welcome program opened with a series of short films made by descendants of incarceration survivors, who each shared a piece of their family history through a particular artifact from camp.

Produced in partnership with filmmaker Jeff MacIntyre and ABC-7 Los Angeles journalist David Ono, subjects of these films ranged from wooden birds carved by inmates to a baseball glove belonging to a departed Nisei grandfather.

Shig Yabu

While each of these were powerful pieces in their own right, the short about Nisei Shig Yabu, whose childhood incarceration was made a little brighter by his camp pet, “Maggie” the Magpie, brought tears to most of the audience. Yabu also authored a children’s book titled “Hello Maggie,” illustrated by former Disney animator and fellow camp survivor Willie Ito, that was sold at the interpretive center.

Following the film screenings, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who was also incarcerated as a young boy at Heart Mountain, gave welcoming remarks and shared a clip from the new documentary about his life titled “An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy.” The clip focused on his friendship with Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, whom he befriended during a rare camp visit from a local Wyoming Boy Scout troop.

Next, pilgrimage committee member and incarceration survivor Sam Mihara gave a report on the ongoing conservation efforts to restore Heart Mountain’s root cellar to a functional state, so that attendees will be able to visit it at future pilgrimages. Sec. Mineta (also former mayor of San Jose, Calif.) would later contextualize that it was the San Jose farmers who were responsible for the root cellar’s success.

After digging an irrigation ditch that diverted water from the Shoshone River closer to camp, they transformed barren mountain plains into arable farmland for the first time in documented history. The root cellar was a necessary improvement in order to store produce that was grown to supplement their meager WRA provisions. The farmers at Heart Mountain were so successful that they were able to ship surplus produce to other incarceration camps with less productive farms.

Having successfully won a grant from the National Parks Service Japanese American Confinement Sites program, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation is responsible for raising $35,000 in additional matching funds. While the fundraising campaign is ongoing, generous pilgrims donated approximately $20,000 during the pilgrimage alone.

As this program came to a close, we decided to grab lunch with a few JACL friends who were also on the pilgrimage, including Executive Director David Inoue and Karen Korematsu. It was a valuable opportunity to break bread across generations and share perspectives on the morning’s events.

Korematsu asked if our family was at Heart Mountain, so I told her how they fled California to seek refuge beyond Military Zone 1 in Ogden, Utah, where my great-grandfather had an uncle living amongst the small Japanese American farming and railroad worker camp there.

I was astonished when the daughter of Fred Korematsu responded, “Your great-grandfather was a resister!” — words that have echoed in my mind many times since. In all the years 
I have spent as a community organizer, artist-activist and scholar, I have never considered my own family’s history from that perspective. It was a liberating idea that I am still coming to terms with.

While we were chatting, one of our lunch companions, Kurt Ikeda, was conversing with a couple of the locals who shared the deli counter that we were eating at. One man, who was a retired high school teacher, spoke very highly of the interpretive center, saying he had visited several times with his students. It was a pleasant enough conversation until he referred to it as the “Jap camp,” suggesting there is still much education to be done, even in communities where these sites are located.

We spent the afternoon attending workshops on a variety of subjects such as oral history related to camp, digital storytelling and a conversation around the preservation and exhibition of artifacts from camp.

I was particularly interested in the artifacts panel because one of the main subjects was the Allen Hendershott Eaton collection of art and objects created by camp inmates that sparked national controversy when they were slated to be sold at auction by Rago Arts in 2015. Ultimately after George Takei and other prominent Japanese American leaders stepped in, ownership of the collection was transferred to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.

Since many of the artifacts came from Heart Mountain, the foundation was heavily involved in the activism that helped stop the auction. Scholar Nancy Ukai spoke about her leadership role in the social media protests that brought the story to national attention, and she shared details of her “50 Objects” blog, which tells the stories behind the artifacts that were recovered from the Eaton Collection.

Next, I attended a musical performance by No-No Boy Project, a folk duo comprised of Erin Aoyama and Julian Saporiti, both PhD candidates in Brown University’s American Studies Department. A major component of their respective research, the project boasts a repertoire of about 60 songs that explores the history of Asian America. As regular participants in the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage (Aoyama’s grandmother was incarcerated here), their performance featured a selection of songs from their suite on Japanese American incarceration.

Saporiti described their project in his own words. “Think about a band playing a dance at an auditorium inside a concentration camp and those feelings, whether its lips on a trumpet or people on a date and giving these individual moments a story through song,” he said.

Between the heavily layered lyrics, Saporiti’s masterful guitar playing and their shared vocal harmonies, the duo breathed new life into these stories of the past. They were later joined by violinist Kishi Bashi — who would perform the following day at the interpretive center.

The afternoon programs concluded with an intergenerational group discussion to help better understand the perspectives on the pilgrimage experience across generations.

My group included Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Board Chair Shirley Higuchi and Friends of Minidoka Board Chair Alan Momohara — both Sansei who have been heavily involved in the pilgrimage movement for some time. Myself and a mid-30s-something woman were the two Yonsei in our group, both attending our first pilgrimage. What began as a fairly superficial conversation about what had brought us there quickly escalated into a deep discussion about the legacy of trauma and certain intergenerational fears around property ownership that have been hardwired into our community through the collective loss our ancestors experienced.

This discussion was one of the more rewarding parts of the pilgrimage for me. Aside from the incredible resources that Higuchi and Momohara provided in better understanding the history and significance of the pilgrimage, I came to an unexpected revelation about my own family’s relationship with intergenerational trauma.

Although my Obaachan was heavily involved with JACL during the redress years, most of her siblings never really engaged with those efforts. For some of the elders in my family, I suspect their detachment from activism is a manifestation of survivor’s guilt, which they suffer as some of the lucky few in their generation to experience the war years from outside the confines of a barbed-wire fence.

Even as a Yonsei, I find myself apologetically explaining how our family avoided going to camp, though arguably the challenges my great-grandparents faced outside of the community were at times more dangerous and resulted in a certain alienation from both Japanese American and non-Japanese communities. Through this discussion, I realized that the same legacy of trauma exists across both experiences and that our family’s history is also an important part of the Japanese American story during WWII.

Later that evening, we joined our group of new friends at a local bar where No-No Boy gave an impromptu performance to a mixed audience of Cody residents and pilgrims. 
Although they repeated a few of the songs from their earlier set, much of the material extended beyond the incarceration to include stories like that of Saporiti’s Vietnamese refugee mother as she fled her homeland by sea.

After striking up a conversation there with Hanako Wakatsuki, who works at the Minidoka National Historic Site, I learned that she had spent the last years of my great-uncle George Koyama’s life as his “adopted granddaughter,” driving him to the pharmacy or other errands and joining him for monthly steak dinners (his favorite). Meeting someone who had cared so deeply for our now-departed elder filled me with immense gratitude as I marveled at how small our extended Japanese American community is.

The next morning, my sister and I arrived at Heart Mountain just as the speaking program began under a large tent adjacent to the interpretive center. Sec. Mineta and Sen. Simpson gave welcoming remarks, where they each recounted aspects of their long friendship.

Mineta, a liberal Democrat, and Simpson, a conservative Republican — when asked what the biggest difference is between them, Mineta responded, “The size of our shoes.” Ever the comedian, Simpson quipped, “These days, our conversations consist mostly of organ recitals — how’s your heart, liver, prostate …” as he went on to describe their lifelong friendship.

It was encouraging to see two individuals at opposite ends of the political spectrum come together in mutual respect and admiration during this time of unprecedented division in our country’s history.

It was also fascinating to learn more about the local Wyoming perspective on the camp — something I had not given much thought to previously. Simpson spoke of watching the first train coming and fears of the unknown as Heart Mountain War Relocation Center became his state’s third-largest city overnight. After meeting Mineta during a scout summit, he was shocked to learn that these boys were just like him. It was the perfect way to set the tone for the rest of the day.

My first activity was a guided tour of the original camp barrack with incarceration survivor and “Hello Maggie” author Yabu. Even after studying a place for the better part of a decade and growing up hearing stories from elders about their experiences in camp, nothing could prepare me for my first visit to an incarceration site. Having seen the camp barrack at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, I did not imagine the experience to be as impactful as it was. As I walked up the three steps from the dusty desert plains onto the ill-fitting plank wood floors, it struck me for the first time just how terrible this place really was.

I imagined the young families entering these spaces for the first time, lying to their children and themselves that everything was going to be all right. Mothers choking back tears as their child asked when they could go back home. I also thought of the Issei elders, those who came to this country with ambitions for something more. How many farm fields were left to rot alongside the dying embers of their American dreams?

The dry desert heat shook me out of this daydream as I realized how hot and stuffy the barrack was. That day being fairly mild in temperature, it was difficult to fathom how the inmates dealt with days worse than these.

As Yabu led our group through the barrack, he explained some of the daily challenges living with three to four other families in such cramped quarters. He spoke of the winters, when a potbelly stove was the only heat source with a single dim light hanging in the middle of the barrack. Nights were difficult for families with young children since the lavatories were too far a walk for small bladders to handle, so empty peach tins would be used as an overnight potty that embarrassed mothers would hurriedly empty in the early morning hours.

These barracks were built in such haste that the wood used in their construction wasn’t even cured. Green wood shrinks and expands with the changing temperatures and humidity, and after a season, many of the plank wall barracks and other camp buildings had half-inch gaps between them. One of the rare moments of levity was when Yabu spoke of the news circulating among many of the boys that the women’s showers were visible through one such gap. Almost as quickly as that news had traveled came the story that someone caught peeping had their eyes gouged out. Whether actual or imagined, that was enough to keep him from ever trying.

Yabu remembered a time when workers returning from furlough in Utah brought a bed-bug infestation back with them. The WRA sprayed DDT, a chemical pesticide that has since been proven to cause cancer, inside and out of the barracks claiming it had the added benefit of “clearing the breathing passages.”

In their first weeks at camp, the mess hall had no lids for food containers, which led to contamination by fly larvae. To solve the problem, the WRA offered camp residents a war bond stamp for every hundred flies killed, whose carcasses were to be stuffed into envelopes as proof. Yabu recalls earning about three stamps himself.

About 40 minutes into his talk, Yabu asked if there were any questions, and a young boy about 8-years-old asked, “Was it fun?” After pausing for a moment, Yabu replied, “You know, it wasn’t all bad” and continued to tell us a few stories about Maggie and some of the other pets he kept.

In the last year or so that the camp was open, security lessened significantly to the point that some 400-500 people would cross the barbed-wire fence on nice days to fish and swim in the Shoshone River. While Yabu and his family were obviously impacted negatively by the camp experience, Yabu’s words reveal a larger truth about this place as a space of community.

As bad as it was being imprisoned for the crime of ancestry by their own government, the camp residents found a sense of community that was lacking for most living outside of the densely populated urban Japantowns — one that many would never again partake in as the community dispersed across the country in the post-war era.

These are the kinds of stories that are lost in the few paragraphs of euphemistic history textbooks that were taught to me and countless others in the American public-school system. Hearing Yabu speak about these experiences over the course of an hour inside of an actual barrack on the former incarceration site helped me understand the camp experience better than my entire lifetime of scholarship on the subject.

As I walked out of the barrack into a sunlit plain of purple sagebrush with the silhouette of Heart Mountain off in the distant blue sky, I felt a certain numbness as I grappled with the fact that immense suffering and pain took place in these beautiful surroundings. Under normal circumstances, many would consider this a paradise, but for our community, it — and the other places like it — is the root of many generations of dysfunction and trauma.

Trying to make sense of the powerful emotions I was feeling, I eventually wandered into the interpretive center, where Kishi Bashi was just beginning his presentation of “Omoiyari” — a song film that features his original violin compositions alongside a visual history of the former incarceration sites. Still a work in progress, he performed live accompaniments to most of the film clips that were shown. As 
I watched, I reflected on the visceral sensory 
experiences I had just encountered in the hot barrack where the dusty air had a faint scent of sagebrush permeating through the dryness.

In his final song clip, Kishi Bashi began humming a chorus that encapsulated the feelings of remembrance, resilience and resistance that are central to the pilgrimage experience. Without a single word of instruction, the entire room of 100 participants began humming in unison — in what I felt was a collective tribute to our ancestors. I suspect I was not the only person shedding tears by this point in the program, a necessary release after the life-altering experiences I had taken part in that day.

Inoue also gave a powerful keynote speech at the lunch program that followed. Beyond his call-to-action for pilgrims to get more involved in the contemporary activism that JACL engages in, Inoue also called for JACLers to take a more active role in the pilgrimages. At a time in our country’s history when xenophobia and bigotry have placed us closer than ever before to the conditions that led to the wartime incarceration, Inoue appealed, “We must stand together as a community, otherwise, we fall.”

Aside from our initial journey to Cody, my sister and I had not spent much time together during the pilgrimage programs until we visited the Heart Mountain Monument later that afternoon, located at the former site of the mess hall chimney.

April had folded 100 origami cranes that she strung together and left at the monument in the tradition made popular by the story of Sadako Sasaki.

Our Issei great-grandparents emigrated from Hiroshima with relatives who both perished in and survived the atomic bombing, so the origami crane as a symbol of peace has always held special significance for our family.

April plans to deliver 100 cranes to each of the 10 incarceration camps, totaling the symbolic number of 1,000 cranes meant to grant its bearer a wish. It was a fitting tribute that made this big brother proud.

After walking through the barren landscape to the hospital compound, we boarded a bus back to the hotel, where the Sayonara Banquet took place later that evening. In yet another creative means of telling the incarceration story, Grant and Rachel Sunada gave a swing dancing demonstration to kick things off, the style of dance that was most popular in the camps. It was a poignant reminder, like so much of the other arts-related programming at this pilgrimage, that there were brief moments of joy amidst the sorrow of camp life.

Korematsu was the featured banquet speaker, and she spoke passionately about the important work she is doing to keep her father’s legacy alive through the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, where she serves as executive director. Bridging Korematsu’s story with various topics related to civil rights and Asian American history, the institute makes connections to present-day issues related to discrimination such as mass incarceration, xenophobia and Islamophobia.

In a particularly heartfelt moment, Korematsu spoke about the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of the Korematsu v. United States verdict, which was done in a poorly worded majority statement that upheld the Trump administration’s Muslim Travel Ban. Brought to tears at the thought of her father’s would-be devastation knowing this was how his verdict would finally be overturned, a middle-aged Sansei man stood up in tears to tell her that Korematsu was his hero — she was following in his footsteps.

Judge Raymond Uno (left) with HMWF’s Shirley Higuchi and Bacon Sakatani.

As the program came to an end, JACLer Judge Raymond Uno (who was incarcerated at Heart Mountain as a child) invited pilgrims to attend the 2019 JACL National Convention that will be hosted in his hometown of Salt Lake City.

Pilgrims were slow to leave the banquet room, many engaged in meaningful conversation with friends both new and old who had shared this powerful experience.

We ended the night singing Japanese folk songs together in a house that the Minidoka Pilgrimage Committee rented amongst individuals who came from Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Idaho, California, Rhode Island and Hawaii. We ranged from recent college graduates to civil rights and community leaders (including Korematsu). It was a meaningful and fitting way to conclude this incredible experience, one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

As a JACLer, I think it is extremely important for our membership to become more engaged in the pilgrimage movement. I find it strange that our organization hasn’t been more involved in past pilgrimages, given the similar themes and activism that is inherent in the work that is being done here.

Perhaps it requires a critical mass within both the younger generation of JACL and pilgrimage attendees, but I see a great deal of potential for our movements to merge. This is a great time to get involved with the pilgrimages especially with the recent formation of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium earlier this year. JACSC is already helping to pave the way for a collaboration between pilgrimage committees, camp interpretive centers and community organizations like the JACL.

At times, the JACL community can feel a bit insular, especially as our annual conventions have moved farther from past models that were more inclusive of nondelegates in their programming. I was greatly encouraged by the fact that such a tight-knit community of Japanese Americans exists elsewhere outside of our organization.

On a personal note, the last time my sister and I have been this close was before I moved out of our parents’ home over a decade ago. Participating in the pilgrimage gave me a sense of closure with previously unresolved issues of guilt of coming from a Japanese American family who was not incarcerated during WWII. Each pilgrim’s experience will be different based on his or her own connection to the history of that space, but as Japanese Americans, we owe it to our ancestors and ourselves to participate in this important movement.

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