Hundreds of pilgrims gather to reflect and remember in the Arizona desert.
By Roberta Barton, CCDC Governor
Old friendships were rekindled and new friendships were forged in the Arizona desert that once represented the worst constitutional violation of civil liberties in our country’s history. Hundreds of pilgrims — including former detainees and their family members, as well as others interested in learning more about the World War II incarceration — assembled in Parker, Ariz., on April 7 at the Poston Pilgrimage’s “Upholding Our Legacy, Generation by Generation” gathering, hosted by the Poston Community Alliance, for a day of reflection and remembrance.
The Poston Community Alliance is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve the stories, artifacts and historic structures of the Poston confinement site, which is one of only two sites occupying Native American land. Alliance board members (all volunteers) are former Poston detainees, descendants of detainees and friends of detainees. Some Poston reunions had been organized in previous years, but with fewer and fewer surviving detainees to attend reunions, the Alliance wanted to create a pilgrimage that could become the springboard for a broader purpose of carrying on the Poston legacy in perpetuity.
Pilgrims boarded buses bright and early from the Blue Water Resort and Casino to begin their day of activities with a ceremony at the Poston Memorial Monument. The ceremony formally dedicated special memorial bricks recently installed around the monument’s perimeter.
Poston Community Alliance Director Marlene Shigekawa, who was born in camp, as well as Johnny Hill and Chairman Dennis Patch of the Colorado River Indian Tribe (CRIT) shared with the large crowd a bit of history demonstrating the partnership and support between the Japanese American detainee community and the CRIT.
In addition, pilgrims were greeted by Miss Indian Arizona and tribal royalty, all beautifully represented in traditional Native American dress. Then it was time to cut the official ribbon. Jim Namba, one of the original monument construction crew volunteers, traveled from Sacramento, Calif., to lead the ribbon-cutting proceedings. As the ceremonial ribbon floated to the ground, excited pilgrims streamed around the monument eagerly searching for bricks in memory of their loved ones.
Nisei veterans were well-represented by James M. Tajiri (322-9-B), the only WWII Nisei veteran in attendance, and his daughter, Kathleen, who also served in the U.S. military. James’ older brother, Shinkichi George Tajiri, earned a Purple Heart during WWII and later became a well-known sculptor.
After viewing the memorial bricks, it was time to explore the original Poston Elementary School Site I National Historic Landmark across the road. Pilgrims reboarded their air-conditioned buses for the short ride. Several original classroom buildings remain on the site. Detainees were seen being interviewed by a local TV station with the buildings as a stark backdrop to the injustice perpetrated by the U.S. government. Descendants of those imprisoned roamed the grounds taking photos of the place that represents a somber chapter in their family histories.
An assessment and stabilization of the site was conducted in 2014-15 with grants from the U.S. National Parks Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites program and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Grants from those two entities also funded relocation of an original barrack from the nearby town of Parker in 2010.
The barrack relocation was a major milestone toward the Alliance’s master plan, which also seeks to renovate the former library building into a visitor center. Progress toward the library project began with a grant of $77,701 from the JACS program, but matching funds of $38,851 are currently required. (To make a donation, visit https://www.gofundme.com/restoration-of-poston-library.)
Pilgrims safely left Site I (no snake bites!) to head down the road for a screening of the new documentary film “For the Sake of the Children” at La Pera Elementary School, which formerly served as the site of Poston Camp II. In fact, the original gymnasium building still sits on the grounds behind wire fencing, though it is not currently in use.
After picking up box lunches, pilgrims were greeted by Brian Wedemeyer, the school’s principal, who made sure to give a “shout out” to pilgrims from Fresno, Calif., especially to Saburo and Marion Masada and Robert Shintaku, who the previous day had shared their incarceration experience with the La Pera students.
Wedemeyer also previously worked as a reporter for the Fresno Bee.
The film began while everyone enjoyed their lunches. The audience was drawn into the emotion and trauma evoked by the film and gave it rave reviews. The film explores the stories of mothers who raised their children while imprisoned, and the impacts of that experience on the detainees, their now-adult children and subsequent generations. Grants from JACS, the National Endowment for the Arts, Terasaki Foundation and California Civil Liberties Education Program funded the film’s production in addition to matching funds through public donations.
It’s been a few weeks now since the pilgrimage, and feedback continues to pour in. Participants agree that the pilgrimage was a success, full of interesting activities and well-organized. There seems to be a lot of interest in another pilgrimage. The Alliance is grateful for all the time and hard work of its board and other volunteers who helped make the event so successful in such a short time. It is no small task to pull off an event of such magnitude when the organizers are spread across counties and cities.
The Alliance would especially like to thank the donors who have supported its previous work, as well as those who have helped since the pilgrimage to meet its needs for additional matching funds.
Most of all, enormous gratitude is owed to the Colorado Indian River Tribe and La Pera Elementary School. They both stepped up with huge offers of assistance in the form of volunteers, logistics support and other resources. Their commitment is truly priceless.