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Museum Review – Manzanar Pilgrimage
My family and I were able to participate in the 43rd annual pilgrimage to Manzanar being held on the 70th anniversary of executive order 9066. We had heard of the camp before and wanted to visit when we learned of this annual pilgrimage and decided to plan our trip to catch it. Not knowing the details of order 9066, I looked it up and found that in 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed this Executive order which mandated the mass imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans. These prisoners then helped to build their own prisons, 10 in all, on old Indian reservation land in the western United States. One of these camps, Manzanar, was established to house inmates from the west coast and is located in Owens Valley about 4 hours North East of Los Angeles off of Highway 395 in Inyo County. It is built on Paiute and Shoshone land, bought by the DWP, and sits about 9 miles north of a small town called Lone Pine. It is in the high desert at the foot of the snow-capped Eastern Sierras with the tallest mountain in the continental United States, Mount Whitney, looming overhead. There are very few trees, excepting Joshua trees and the occasional outcropping of California Junipers, but there is plenty of dust and an abundance of tumbleweeds covering the valley floor. On our way to Manzanar from LA, we passed through the Mojave Desert passing Red Rock Canyon, Robber’s Roost and the roads to California City, China Lake and Death Valley.
We arrived in Manzanar in the late morning on Saturday, April 28th, 2012. As we drove in, we
saw a reconstructed tower, one of eight that once surrounded the camp, from which armed
guards kept a vigilant eye on internees. We then passed the original stone sentry house which I
later learned was constructed by inmate R.F. Kado and who 30 years later installed a bronze
plaque on it as a historic marker. Then, as we entered the compound we focused on what is by
far the largest and most imposing structure, the visitor’s center. It was once the former high
school gymnasium built by the internees and renovated by the National Parks Service (NPS).
The $5.2 million center houses a museum complete with a gift
shop, two small theatres, artifacts, exhibits and a mural with an American flag listing internee
names of all those who were housed here per historical records.
As we parked under one of the
few shade trees and got out, a sweet spring wind was busy kicking up small dust devils and
carrying them around the reconstructed barracks and California Junipers. They danced until the
noon sun and heat, in the high 80s, settled them down. We set out by foot following the
pilgrimage. We walked for the 2 and a half miles to the cemetery where we saw a large crowd gathered in front
of the white obelisk that was built to remember more than 11,000 Japanese Americans processed
in the camp and those who died here. The program included Speakers, the presentation of
certificates of appreciation and other awards, musical interludes and the ondo, or group dancing.
After the day’s agenda, there was another session called Manzanar At Dusk held in the Lone
Pine High School gymnasium. There, we were broken into small groups of 15 to 20 and sent out
into the quad to discuss our impressions with a couple of internees and young Japanese
American college students assigned to each group. Others of varying age, gender, ethnicity,
religious beliefs, and sexual orientation were in each group. Two notable groups present were those of Native Americans and Muslims.
I was able to meet and greet many who had lived in the camp and hear some of their stories. One man said he was picked up in Terminal Island where he was working in the tuna industry. He was given 48 hours to sell all he owned before being shipped off to Manzanar where he spent the better part of 3 years. Once settled in Manzanar, his job was to move the projector from mess hall to mess hall showing movies. When he was released he said he found a job within a couple of weeks and began his life over. In time, he and a few partners opened an engine repair shop and did quite well. When the owner of the building they were leasing informed them that he would be selling the building, all the other partners walked away. Since our internee really wanted to buy the property, he found others who were interested and put his money with theirs. When he went to the owner with the offer, the owner said he did not know the other partners and would not sell to them. The owner wanted to sell the property to him alone and asked how much money he had. Even though he only had $10,000 and knew the property was worth much more than that, the owner was happy to sell it to him for that amount. After many more years of business, our ex-internee has since retired and now leases that property out and lives comfortably. After telling us this story, he said that he did fight the government and that it was very difficult and no fun at all, but that he was able, after many years and much difficulty, to win. “So” he said, “if you fight the government you can win.”
After he shared his story there was silence in our group until one well-spoken young woman wearing a hijab spoke up and said, “But that was before 911 and before Guantanamo Bay. The laws have been changing and it is sure to be much more difficult for us.” The group discussion then turned to modern considerations such as the National Defense Authorization Act which allows our government to detain any individual, without charges or trial. We also discussed the National Parks service’s role in taking on the responsibility of telling the story of Manzanar and leaving out much of the darker side of the experience. Several participants spoke of the African American, the American Indian and immigrants from South America experiences and encouraged us to become involved and take action when we see signs that merit it. Overall the message centered on remembering and building bridges to help unite those of us who look to learn from those who came before.
The Manzanar Committee YouTube video library link below to check out short pieces on California farming, fishing and personal stories related to internment
American Indian Links to Manzanar
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