The land under dispute is a 359-acre portion of the Tule Lake concentration camp’s barracks area, where 27,000 inmates once lived and 331 died during WWII.
By Barbara Takei
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco is poised to decide if Japanese Americans have a right to assert claims over the purchase and sale of the Tulelake airfield — a small rural airfield sited in the middle of the World War II Tule Lake concentration camp. Tule Lake is an American site of shame, the only one of America’s 10 concentration camps that became a maximum-security segregation center to punish those who protested their false incarceration.
On April 18, a three-judge panel will hear the Tule Lake Committee’s challenge to the September 2020 decision of Eastern District of California Judge William B. Shubb, who dismissed TLC v. FAA, et. al. He ruled that the court lacked “federal jurisdiction” to consider the claim of Japanese Americans, leaving no rationale for survivors and descendants of those incarcerated at Tule Lake to have a voice concerning the historic site where 27,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were unjustifiably incarcerated.
The land under legal dispute is a 359-acre portion of the Tule Lake concentration camp’s barracks area, where 27,000 inmates lived and 331 died. When the camp closed in March 1946, in an era of Jim Crow racism, the site was treated as worthless surplus property and given to the nearby city of Tulelake for use as an airfield. Like many places that have spiritual and emotional significance to people of color, this rare, historically significant site was paved over and erased.
Since 2000, Japanese Americans have worked to preserve the unique Tule Lake civil rights site. However, in 2014, Modoc County, the airfield’s sponsor, prepared to implement a $3.5 million Tulelake airfield expansion plan. It took two lawsuits to force compliance with environmental laws that protect historically significant Tulelake airfield.
The airfield’s owner, the City of Tulelake, decided it no longer wanted responsibility for the historic site. Rather than negotiating a return to the Department of Interior, the city disposed of it, giving the concentration camp lands to the Oklahoma Modoc Nation for the sum of $17,500 — approximately $50 an acre.
In its bid to purchase the airfield, the Oklahoma-based tribe promised to align with local farmers and ranchers to overturn Native American water rights and expand aviation on the Tulelake airfield site. In addition, it promised the city of Tulelake free legal representation in the conflict over the airfield.
Despite Modoc County’s half-century role as the airfield’s sponsor, the county’s offer to match the tribe was ignored. The Tule Lake Committee offered more than double the price paid by the Modoc Nation. It, too, was ignored.
To heal from the pain and trauma of the government’s racist forced removal and incarceration, Japanese Americans make pilgrimages and seek to preserve the Tule Lake concentration camp as a place of remembrance. The Tule Lake Committee has hoped that the Oklahoma tribe and City of Tulelake would feel compassion for its desire to protect and have access to a place of great spiritual and historic significance. Instead, they dismissed Japanese American spiritual and emotional connections to this place of grief, pain and loss as “hypothetical” and “imagined.”
Even though their brief (Aug. 31, 2022) acknowledged the former barracks area was “one of the most emotionally significant areas on the airport property,” the tribe and the City of Tulelake argued, “an airport is not a recreational or sightseeing site.” Their rationale for preventing site access to Japanese American survivors and descendants is that access “has always been restricted” and that the tribe should derive “enjoyment and exercise of the property rights it received.”
It is difficult to comprehend why the Oklahoma Modoc Nation considers Tule Lake’s concentration camp land — a place of tragedy and human suffering — as an appropriate place to operate an aviation business.
The Tule Lake Committee trusts that the three-judge Ninth Circuit panel will recognize that denying Japanese Americans a voice in the treatment of the Tule Lake site is not a path toward reparative justice and healing.