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2016 Minidoka Pilgrimage

Participants who experienced the World War II incarceration camps together on the 2016 Minidoka Pilgrimage. Photo courtesy of Minidoka Pilgrimage Committee

By Izumi Hansen

For The North American Post

A twenty minute bus ride through green fields of sugar beets from Twin Falls, Idaho leads to a non-descript sign for travelers and locals. The sign marks the proximity to Hunt Road, which leads to what now exists as the Minidoka Relocation Center.

The bus drives ten more minutes, partially along a swift flowing river. A guard tower, remade only two years ago, appears in the distance. Before the construction of the tower, stone remnants of the camp’s original visitor center marked the entrance to the camp.

On the weekend of June 24, Japanese American incarcerees, their descendents and friends came together for the 2016 Minidoka Pilgrimage. This year marked the fourteenth annual pilgrimage and was the largest group to attend, with over 250 pilgrims, according to the Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee, which organizes the pilgrimage every year. This year the Committee was able to provide 30 people over the age of 80 who were incarcerated at the camps with scholarships to attend the pilgrimage as well as scholarships for six college students.

The weekend started with a twelve hour trip from Bellevue, Washington to Twin Falls, ID, on Thursday. Others found their own way to Southern Idaho from along the West Coast and even from as far as the Midwest.

The next day was filled with educational programming. The programming addressed personal accounts of the incarceration, the current effort to preserve incarcerees’ stories, the modern Japanese American community, and how racism is understood today. The Pilgrimage Committee tried to include as many voices as possible during planning to allow a better understanding of the swath of reactions to incarceration.

All participants began the weekend by viewing “Children of the Camps.” The film is a record of a discussion guided by Dr. Satsuki Ina between six child incarcerees. The film set the opening tone for the weekend, and struck a chord with many viewers in the audience. Many pilgrims who were interned at Minidoka were teenagers or young children at the time. And some were born at Minidoka or at Camp Harmony.

Following the screening, Ina, who is a licensed therapist, discussed the creation of the film and answered questions from the audience. Some of the discussion surrounded how camp affected people interned at a young age and the consequences of forced incarceration on later generations of Japanese Americans.

In an effort to understand parallels in today’s discriminatory political rhetoric, the Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee welcomed Namira Islam, executive director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, to speak about discrimination against Muslims.

Islam gave the keynote speech, discussing her faith in context to discrimination and unity. When she learned about the treatment of twentieth century Japanese Americans, she also found many modern parallels to the treatment of Muslim Americans and Hispanic Americans today. By learning from, sharing with and supporting each other, she hoped that similar incarcerations would not be repeated. During the weekend, she also gave panels on a modern understanding of immigration and racism.

On Saturday, pilgrims visited Minidoka. Today the site of Minidoka is managed by the National Park Service. Only a handful of the 600 buildings where about 10,000 Japanese Americans lived, worked, and played remain. Most of the buildings were destroyed or moved away, so some of what is left were found again and brought to the site. A barrack and a mess hall at Block 22, a warehouse, and a fire station are some of the notable buildings on the site today.  For many of the incarcerees, this was the first time they returned to the camp. Pilgrims were able to tour the site, guided by park rangers from the National Park Service.

This year the newest addition to the camp was a baseball field, created by volunteers and organized by the National Park Service and Friends of Minidoka last May. When the camp was in use, at least 14 baseball fields dotted the 950 acres of the site, and some of the baseball teams were locally known to play very well. Baseball played an important role at the camp as a form of recreation and entertainment for incarcerees and the fields were also the sites of graduations and funerals.

Following the visit to Minidoka, pilgrims shared their connection with Minidoka through guided group discussions. Through the discussions a number of themes appeared. Recognizing the perseverance of parents before, during, and after the camps; the necessity of sharing and preservating of stories from incarceration; and the diversity of experiences in the camps were some points revealed during the discussions. Many of these ideas were reflected throughout the weekend from different presenters as well.

The final day of the pilgrimage was the closing ceremony and a dedication of the baseball field. Four former baseball players at Minidoka attended the ceremony and speakers reiterated the importance of baseball at the camp and for Japanese Americans around the United States during the early twentieth century.

Representatives of the Friends of Minidoka and National Park Service spoke about the recent developments at the Minidoka National Historic Site. Besides the baseball field, more names have been added to the Honor Roll. For the future, the site will continue to be developed, including more signage to find the site and the creation of a temporary then a permanent visitors center (with bathrooms) in upcoming years.

The closing ceremony concluded with a keynote by pilgrimage planning committee member Dale H. Watanabe, who spoke about his family’s history with the camp and how it shaped his commitment to justice in the face of discrimination.

“It is because of your tremendous strength, resilience, and honesty that I speak out. All the lives interrupted and put on hold by the stroke of a pen… I will share what you share with me so I can help other people understand,” said Watanabe. “Your struggle is not nor will it be forgotten.”

[Editor’s Note]

Izumi Hansen is a second-generation Japanese American. She is a recent graduate of the University of Washington and attended the 2016 Minidoka Pilgrimage as a student scholar.