In a now familiar tale, 120,000 Japanese Americans were removed from the West Coast and relocated to internment camps after Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent U.S. entry into World War II. But in a little known piece of that history, the U.S. government sent nearly 20,000 of them to three camps on a Colorado River Indian Tribe reservation at Poston with an explicit plan to use Japanese Americans -- most of them Californians skilled in farming -- to help develop tribal lands for later Indian use.
FOR THE RECORD:
Relocation camp: An article in Tuesday's California section about Japanese American internees sent to Poston, Ariz., during World War II misspelled Mary Higashi's name as Hayashi. —
Under the plan, the Japanese Americans helped clear lands and build irrigation systems, started farms and built schools from handmade adobe bricks. Their work in developing a reservation that previously had no electricity, running water or modern homes -- many families lived in mud huts -- laid the foundation for the tribe to jump-start its standard of living and thrive financially, said Michael Tsosie, director of the tribal museum.
Now, 66 years ago today after then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the relocation, the two peoples are deepening their shared bonds.
Last week, Native Americans and two dozen former Japanese American internees gathered in Poston to memorialize their experiences and view a new documentary about it, "Passing Poston," by New York filmmakers Joe Fox and James Nubile. They also discussed plans to restore some of the barracks, seek national historical landmark status for the site and build a museum about their shared history.
"The basis of our present-day wealth is the result of the activities during the war years by the Japanese," Tsosie said. "Maybe if they knew that all of their suffering and hard work did make a remarkable difference in the lives of so many tribal people, it might bring them some peace."
The lasting effect of their fateful desert encounter remained largely hidden for decades by elders in both communities who declined to talk much about it, both sides say. In 2000, however, Berkeley artist and researcher Ruth Okimoto, 71, began researching Poston in a personal quest to understand the experience that had torn her life apart.
Okimoto, a Tokyo native brought to San Diego as an infant by her Christian missionary parents in 1937, was only 6 when she arrived at Poston in 1942. Her memories of the time are sketchy: a German neighbor making her family split pea soup before soldiers with rifles and bayonets took them away. Shame at having to share latrines and showers with so many strangers. Hunting for petrified wood and scorpions in the vast, forbidding landscape.
Other, older former internees who journeyed to Poston last week shared their memories. Kiyo Sato, a Sacramento retired school nurse who was 19 at the time, remembered fainting from the blistering desert heat, which climbed as high as 125 degrees.
San Pedro resident Mary Hayashi, also 19 at the time, remembered arriving at the dust-filled barracks bereft of any furniture but an oil stove. She collapsed to the floor in tears.
Okimoto was chased and spit on, rocks heaved at her by schoolmates when she returned to her San Diego elementary school in 1945. As she became an artist in the 1970s, dark and troubling images began to surface in her work -- a two-faced portrait of herself, the American flag covering her child's eyes and adult mouth. That began her journey of self-discovery that, in 2000, led back to Poston.
"I needed to go deep into my subconscious to see who I am," Okimoto said.
For their part, the tribal people had no say over the mass encroachment on their land, museum director Tsosie said. Only when government trucks began rolling in to build the barracks did leaders begin to ask questions.
"The other Indians didn't like them coming in," recalled Gertrude B. Van Fleet, 83, who used to visit the camps with her father, the Mohave tribe's first Presbyterian preacher who ministered to the internees. "They were worried because people were always coming in to take land from the Indians. Some spoke out real hard. Some wanted to chase them out."
But the Indians were told: "It's part of the war effort. Don't ask questions. Do your patriotic duty and accept it," Tsosie said.
The Japanese American population, peaking at 19,000 scattered over three camps, dwarfed the 1,200 Mohave and Chemehuevi Indians living on the reservation at the time. But the encounters were limited, both sides say. An armed guard was posted at a canal that divided the populated upper reservation with the lower reservation where the internment camps were placed. And the Indians were told not to mingle with them.
Still, Tsosie said his own family remembered renting them horses and trading fish they caught from the nearby canals and Colorado River for camp provisions of sugar and flour. There were basketball games between Japanese Americans in Poston and American Indians from a nearby high school in Parker.