November 1, 2011

Pilgrimage Reflection by Casey Jones

Posted in 2011 Minidoka Pilgrimage, Civil Liberties Symposium, Japanese American Incarceration, Minidoka Pilgrimage tagged , , , , at 1:37 pm by minidokapilgrimage

Pilgrimage Reflection by Casey Jones

Pre-Pilgrimage

I want to first express the gratitude that I feel toward the Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee and all who contributed to the Seattle University Scholarship that is allowing me to be part of remembering and maintaining a painful but important part of history.  My thanks will likely multiply as I delve further into the pilgrimage itself.  The possibility of attending the pilgrimage, however, would not have been were it not for their efforts in general, and the generosity they have shown me in particular.

Preparing for the pilgrimage to Minidoka started when a friend who had gone encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to go myself.  Since before I even applied, the process has drawn on so many facets of my thinking and feeling that I have become dizzy at times reeling from the immensity of the prospect and its profound significance.  I have known and talked about the incarceration since middle school, when the sense of familiarity and interest that led me to Asian Studies at Seattle University was born.  For a long time I hit cold, silent walls of unawareness and apathy towards the prejudice and pain manifest in the injustice of the expulsion and imprisonment of the Japanese-American communities on the west coast.  Even now, as I tell family members and friends of my plans for early July, I am confronted by one or both of two legacies: a lack of awareness stemming from the absence of the incarceration from general historical education and insistent defense of Executive Order 9066.  Explaining the racism and civil injustice behind the incarceration is painfully frustrating at times, like talking to fences of barbed wire.

There is much that I wish to learn from this year’s pilgrimage to Minidoka; there is much more that I hope to feel.  Learning more about the direct experiences of incarceration, I hope to have a greater capacity for explaining how wrong it was.  I want to have a firmer foundation for discussion and advocacy that branch into current manifestations of prejudice, and the glossing-over of injustice in such a way that makes possible its repetition.  Going to Minidoka and participating in its educational and anecdotal programming, I know that I will have both a greater knowledge to spread to others and greater confidence in that knowledge.  A large component of my preparation for the trip, and an internal struggle as well, is what I expect to feel while there.  Here I must admit that I am something of an outsider to the community’s historical experience of racism and the ramifications of incarceration.  I have been privileged, in a sense, to be free of the pain associated with this past; as someone with white skin, there are different issues that I have with incarceration and how I situate myself with relation to it and the people it has more directly affected.  Nonetheless, I expect to be emotionally reeling for some time after the trip is over; I feel too close to the Japanese-American community and its past for this not to happen.  And, to a degree, I think the shock will be appropriate.  I can never know what it was like to be imprisoned in a country that I considered my home, the rights so much a part of my identity stripped, and my identity itself attacked.  What I can do, however, is strive to get as near it as I can empathetically, and keep the weight of Minidoka in my heart as a reminder of what I care about and who I am; at once removed from and tied to this community’s past, present, and (if permitted) future.  Going to the place where so many were forced to live in uncertainty, their homes and lifestyles taken from them, I want to get closer to them.  I already feel this past as part of me, and now I want to know it better, now I want to serve it better in what I know and say of it.  Most importantly, I want to approach the feeling of Minidoka at the site, so that the passion and personal reality, rather than the pallid historical “facts” are what I return speaking.

Post-Pilgrimage

The pilgrimage to Minidoka was too tremendous and profound for me to believe that I will understand its ramifications fully for some time to come.  I learned much, as I had hoped to; I felt much, as I had hoped to.  But among the learning and feeling with which I had hoped to return from that sacred and infamous place, I find hungry emptiness reawakened and made keener.  It was my great joy to form the first tenuous threads of friendship with fellow pilgrims, my great honor to hear the stories of family and personal histories tied to incarceration.  The trip as a whole was, as I remarked to several, a bitter sweet affair.  Bitter in the way of something ugly brought to light and examined, its full weight no longer veiled by the fog of everyday dissociation.  Bitter in the sense that the pride one takes in the numerous expressions of strength embodied by Japanese-American incarcerees is matched by sorrow for the fact that such strength was so unjustly made necessary.  Sweet for the friendships and sharing of thoughts and the hope for future honors to those who lived this history and allowed us to be the survivors of it.  Sweet in the stirring up of ideas and courage, to challenge a continuing legacy of racism systemic to a country the foundation of which holds so much promise otherwise.  There is no hotel at the corner where these two feelings meet, but there is a community, there is a past, and there is a future.

To offer a few thoughts that have stricken me most powerfully in the week since returning, I want to share with the reader a few events that capture them.  I am sure others could speak better or would have better things to say, but I will do my best with what I can offer.

Minidoka is a sacred place.  Stepping off of the bus at the entrance to Minidoka National Historic Site, the sun beating down hot from a sky bereft of familiar clouds, I noted how quiet the place seemed despite the throng that had just arrived.  The land here was not the hostile desert of which I had read and heard; a fertile swath of farmland had long since been born of the determination of the incarcerees (only to be taken from them when it was time to give the land to returning white soldiers).  Meandering about the entrance, I walked to what was once a visitor’s center and found there an engraving of the names of those who had been imprisoned at Minidoka but given their lives to protect the nation that had put them and their families there.  Soon other pilgrims found their way together, and I was soon caught up in the Shinto ceremony of which I had heard before leaving Seattle.  Being a fledgling adherent, I wanted to honor the spirits of those who were imprisoned, especially those who never left.  The reading of each name on the placard, giving honor to each soul that had faced the uncertainty of an American concentration camp and persevered so boldly, set a reverent tone for the rest of my time at the site.  Perhaps the greatest lesson for those of us born after incarceration is a mindfulness of the past and present personhood of those who were there.  Many walked the earth that I trod at Minidoka, each with a complex life and spirit, each with unique but shared pain and hope in confinement.  We honor them by remembering this to the level of intrinsic, intuitive knowledge.  We honor them by speaking against the hurts that they faced, and in challenging the potential for reiterations thereof.

Minidoka is plural.  Two excellent films at the symposium on Civil Rights at the College of Southern Idaho must be plugged here for their worth in understanding the various ways in which the community encountered overwhelming wickedness with admirable strength.  Honor Bound produced by Ms. Wendy Hanamura highlights the valor of the young men who fought for the country that had turned so viciously on them and their families.  It chronicles the strength of their determination to serve community and country, challenging racism with their deeds despite what might be seen as the government’s exploitation and under-acknowledgment of the all-Japanese 442nd and 100th.  Frank Abe’s Conscience and the Constitution tells a different story of strength, exploring the courage of resistors to military service and the unequivocal loyalty demanded by a racist US government.  It portrays the passion of these young men and their endurance of suppression from concentration camp authorities and their own community alike.  The discussion incorporated the role of women in military service and the too-often taboo topic of those dubbed “No-No Boys”.  Though these stories are, for various reasons, derided and underplayed, they are no less crucial to understanding, and thus honoring, the experience of life in the camps.  There is great pain in the incarceration itself, even more demarcated along lines of separation within the community to this day.  It may be a long process to reconcile these various ways of challenging the events of the early 1940’s, but it is no less worthwhile for the fact.  It is no less important due to the challenge it poses.

Minidoka is not the end.  On the bus ride home, before we even left Idaho, an original propaganda piece by the US government was screened.  It struck several strings of discussion that I believe to be important for Minidoka to be truly meaningful.  As one pilgrim said to me “What you know isn’t enough.  What you feel isn’t enough.  What do you do?”  Learning and feeling from the pilgrimage are important, but they must be part of a greater movement toward action if their meaning is to reach fruition.  We cannot accept the obfuscation of incarceration histories (emphasis on plural) and the reiterations on the theme of racism sewn subtlely into the fabric of the US promises of liberty, justice, and equality.  I mentioned in my pre-pilgrimage reflection the concept of “talking to fences of barbed wire.”  These fences remain around us in the paradigms that allowed physical incarceration to be forced on the Issei and Nisei.  Though we do not have to feel the fear and betrayal that they did, we and others remain the targets of racism fueled by state power and popular unawareness.  These fences will continue to constrict this and other communities unless we recognize and oppose the patterns of separation and confinement in service to dominant interests and force.  We must stay rooted in the feeling and knowing of Minidoka, but we must carry these with us into the future and into partnerships with others willing to work for change.

Once more I want to thank those who made this affecting experience a reality for me.  Thank you, my fellow pilgrims, for the wisdom, stories, and conversations you shared.  Thank you also, reader, for tolerating what may not always be a perfect article, and one that is certainly longer than my skill merits, though too short for what needs saying.

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