One of the things I love about driving long distances in the US is how the scenery changes right before your eyes.
The first leg of our trip took us from the mountains and evergreens of the Pacific Northwest to the high desert and sagebrush of Idaho. Driving down the Columbia River in Oregon is a beautiful example of the earth unfolding; the river stays the same as the land on either side morphs from a lush green gorge to dusty rolling hills.
But not only the topography changes, but the climate as well. We left pleasant Washington to wind up in 100-degree heat.
I thought about this as we made the first justice-related stop on our trip, the Minidoka War Relocation Center, a WWII Japanese interment camp located outside of Jerome, ID. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, driven by fear and suspicion, the US Government ordered the relocation of Japanese citizens along the west coast to various internment camps around the US. Some 10,000 were relocated from Alaska, Washington and Oregon to Minidoka.
Walking around the site in the beating sun is what made me connect to this sad chapter in our nation’s history. For my family and I, residents of Washington State for 15 years, have acclimated to and greatly appreciate the climate of the Pacific Northwest, where it is for the most part temperate all year round. Yes, its warmer in the summer and cooler in the summer, and yes, it rains a lot, but we avoid temperature extremes. I couldn’t imagine living in that heat.
And yet, those forced from their homes in the Northwest had to endure the hot summers of Idaho, a change in weather that I’m sure served as a constant reminder of their confinement and this disruption in their lives.
The site itself is fairly barren, most of the original buildings were taken down after the war. Some original structures, or parts thereof, remain, and an interpretive trail and visitor’s center provide extensive information on the site and life in the camp. Some structures have been recreated. It is possible to look out over the vast landscape and imagine what was there 70 years ago.
In addition to the fact of relocation and internment, life in the camp was disruptive in other ways. Families did not generally eat together as a family, children were separated and ate with one another, for example. (Another variation in the long history of family separation.) And at the same time, aspects of self-sufficiency and communal life were strong. Camp residents turned barren earth into farm land, and grew their own food. We saw the root cellar, where they stored food throughout the year. A baseball diamond was another expression of the desire for normalcy.
And then, the final leg of the trail took us along the barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp. Despite the schools, the farming, the baseball–the camp was and will always be a prison for people whose only “crime” was their race and ancestry. The fence sparked the most interesting conversation of the visit as we described how barbed wire was invented as a means of restraining cattle, and its use here provided that subtext of the “other” as “animal.”
After the war, we learned, the detainees were given a train ticket and $25 (about $300 in today’s money). The site of the camp was turned into private farms, and those Japanese citizens who did not wish to return home and wanted to stay were not even allowed to participate in the lottery that divvied up the land. Final acts of disgrace as this ignominious chapter came to a close.
The camp may be gone, but we know that the fear of the Other continues. Yesterday’s internment is today’s travel ban. Guilt by association, policy based on fear, collective punishment–whether based on race, ethnicity, religion, etc.–these are not only attitudes present in our country but still official policy of the government.
The climate hasn’t changed that much.