Pacific Citizen Front Page

The Hanada brothers

The diverse membership of the groups involved in the Poston restoration effort sheds light on the internment camp’s colorful past.

By Christine McFadden, Special to the Pacific Citizen
Published October 16, 2009

The roofs of the 16 buildings that still stand on the former site of the Poston internment camp need work. The wood is raw and exposed. The structures are vulnerable to the arid temperatures of southwestern Arizona. It needs sealant and metal roofing — not just to protect its physical history, but its unique personal history as well.

If left alone, there is a possibility that Poston, which has the largest remaining infrastructure of all 10 internment campsites, will deteriorate in just a few years.

Members of the Poston Restoration Project are doing everything they can to prevent this from happening. Funded by grants from organizations such as the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program and guided by the Environmental Protection Agency, members are racing against the clock to restore this pinnacle place in Japanese American internment history.

Working toward the end goal of building preservation and the construction of an onsite multicultural museum, the diverse membership of the Poston restoration effort sheds light on the internment camp’s colorful past.

Uncovering Poston

When Dr. Ruth Okimoto, 73, became curious about the history behind the internment camp that imprisoned her for three years as a child, she uncovered a unique story behind it that eventually launched a full-scale effort toward its restoration.

“I began to wonder about how in the world did that whole thing come about, and that’s when I got real curious,” she says of Poston, located on Native American reservation lands near Parker, Arizona.

Okimoto obtained a research grant and access to reservation archives on the land that once imprisoned over 18,000. She uncovered an interesting relationship.

“The War Relocation Authority (WRA) were looking for a site — a deserted site, and the reservation certainly fulfilled that requirement,” she says.

Her research revealed that the WRA contacted the former Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) and struck a deal during WWII. The OIA agreed to relinquish their land as an internment camp in exchange for Japanese American labor to build a canal, bringing in water to the reservation.

“She [Okimoto] discovered this connection that nobody had ever really written about,” says Dr. Jay Cravath, who works for the education department of the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT).

“Midlife she developed this incredible rage about this experience, for herself, for her parents, for her family, and she wanted to trace it down,” he continued. “She wanted to take care of these demons, so she came out to Parker.”

Okimoto met with Dennis Patch, CRIT Tribal Councilman and Education Director, who coincidentally lived in one of the former barracks.

According to Cravath, the two “had the same vision.”

In 1999, CRIT set aside an initial 40 acres (now 80) of reservation for the project. Four years later, 15 former Poston detainees, including Okimoto, and 15 CRIT members met at the reservation to plan for restoration.

“They got it rolling,” Cravath says.

Restoration Efforts

Poston is broken into three separate sites separated by 1-3 miles. As of Sept. 23, all asbestos and lead-based paint had been removed from Camp 1.

However, progress on some fronts has been hindered.

In 2002, a match was lit and thrown in the auditorium located in Camp 1.

“It was still standing, and it was beautiful,” Okimoto remembers. “But it burnt the wood part of it, the stage, and all of the beautiful hardwood floor. It was a real shame.”

According to Poston Community Alliance Board member and archivist Dianne Kiyomoto, RD, the group is currently working on bringing back an original donated barrack to camp, located 17 miles away in Parker.

Cravath recently wrote a successful grant to the National Park Service, earning a “challenge” grant of $25,994 to record the oral histories of former internees. This means that the National Park Service will double whatever money is contributed.

Additionally, he is hammering out the details of a memorandum of agreement between the JA community and the tribes.

“There are all sorts of issues, legal ramifications and sovereignty and CRIT— they’re the feistiest,” he says.

Carrying on the Legacy

Not all tribal members are as positive about the restoration as Cravath.

“There are still tribal members against doing anything with Poston,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The current generation heard their parents/grandparents complaining about how good the internees got it.”

According to Cravath, tribal members were told nothing by the OIA of why the JAs were relocated to their land.

“For all they knew it was like Israeli development on the West Bank,” he says.

Both parties working on the project are strong advocates for the spread of education of the historical events that took place onsite.

“One thing I’ve tried to do is get the story out as often as possible,” Cravath adds.

Kiyomoto’s parents lived in Poston Camp 3, Block 305. When attempting to collect information for a family tree for her parents’ 50th anniversary, she was disappointed to find that little existed.

“I searched the Internet on the subject of Poston and was very disappointed. There was very little information, and only a few government photos,” she wrote.

Marlene Shigekawa’s involvement in the project lies in her motivation to carry on her father’s legacy. Shigekawa, the Poston Community Alliance, Inc.’s current treasurer, was born in Poston Camp 1 and her father served as the camp’s chief of police.

“I feel like he did much to uphold the rights of Japanese Americans and I heard a lot of stories from both my parents and I feel like that history should not be forgotten,” she says.

Okimoto decided to take a step back from the project in hopes that the younger generation will get involved in the restoration.

“I was thinking younger people should probably get involved,” Okimoto said, although she continues to help by presenting oral histories of the camp.

“There is a core of people who believe the stories of those who suffered so grave an injustice need to be told, their lives honored, and the remarkable ways they survived recorded,” Cravath says.

Christine McFadden is a Portland JACL member.

Help Restore Poston
A donation of $10, $20 or more will go far.
Send checks payable to ‘Poston Community Alliance’ to:
Marlene Shigekawa
956 Hawthorne Drive
Lafayette, CA. 94549-4640



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