Heritage and anti-Asian violence
Conflict over history and memory dominates news cycles in the United States today. Reckonings around how to remember historical figures who perpetrated great injustices and those excluded from national narratives have led to heated debates and protests often over statues and place names in urban cores.1Tiffany C. Fryer et al., “As the Statues Fall: An (Abridged) Conversation about Monuments and the Power of Memory,” Current Anthropology 62, no. 3 (June 1, 2021): 373–84. Much less attention has been given to the erasure and marginalization of sites of heritage situated far from urban cores or even small towns that are still of great significance. This is in part the legacy of structurally racist policies, which create geographies that remove oppressed peoples from sight, whether through redlining or the placement of sites of confinement in less populated areas.“Despite its distance from large Japanese American communities, Minidoka has remained an important site of remembrance for Japanese Americans, with heritage practices of visitation and pilgrimage central to their experience.”
Located in south-central Idaho, the Minidoka Relocation Center was an incarceration camp that held more than 13,000 Japanese Americans from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California during its operation from 1942 to 1945 on the basis of their ancestry alone. Incarcerees built extensive irrigation projects and farmed the land extensively while imprisoned. After the camp’s closure, incarcerees largely left the area, and buildings and land plots were given away to returning World War II veterans as homesteads and farms. For Japanese Americans, mass removal and confinement were deeply traumatic. Their legacy haunts many families to the present day as silences from survivors shroud the history of the camp for descendants. Despite its distance from large Japanese American communities, Minidoka has remained an important site of remembrance for Japanese Americans, with heritage practices of visitation and pilgrimage central to their experience. However, the structural legacies of the incarceration continually threaten to erase and mute such practices, inscribing new violences on these sites of heritage. These legacies include the infrastructure of incarceration, their landscape, and material remains. Though the WWII incarceration is thought of as a historical event, these sites retain memories and strong connections to survivors and descendants while simultaneously inhabiting distinct meanings and economic potential for other publics, connecting the past and the present.
Yet, violence against Asian American communities did not end with the closure of incarceration camps. Anti-Asian violence has been consistently on the rise over the past three years, stoked by xenophobic rhetoric, international politics, and racist associations with the Covid-19 virus. In addition to the brutalization of Asian American bodies, there has been a destruction of the material expressions of Asian American heritage with vandals targeting monuments, historic buildings, statues, Buddhist temples, and even cherry blossom trees. The defacement of sites of cultural heritage often goes hand in hand with the demonization of racial and ethnic groups, attempting to alienate them and contributing to narratives of otherness and non-belonging. Such actions are not new, but part of a continuing and well-documented history of alienation faced by Asian American communities in the United States.2→John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats, eds., Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear (London; New York: Verso, 2014).
→Erika Lee, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
Japanese American confinement
The story of Japanese American confinement is a prime example of such removal. During WWII, all people of Japanese ancestry living along the western coast of the United States were removed from their homes and imprisoned for one to four years without due process. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 1941, the War Department issued a series of inflammatory and racist memoranda, claiming that it was impossible to determine the loyalty of all Japanese Americans. As historian Greg Robinson has written, California Attorney General Earl Warren argued, in particularly circular logic, that the lack of evidence implicating sabotage coming from within the Japanese American community was evidence in itself of a larger conspiracy.3Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 127.
Over 120,000 people would experience confinement in a network of prison camps across the United States. Most Japanese Americans were incarcerated in 10 camps, two in Arizona (Poston and Gila River), two in Arkansas (Rohwer and Jerome), two in California (Manzanar and Tule Lake), and one each in Colorado (Granada), Wyoming (Heart Mountain), Utah (Topaz), and Idaho (Minidoka). The placement of these camps was governed by a set of core considerations, including proximity to transit networks, potential for agricultural development by incarceree labor, and distance from military outposts and population centers. The distance of camps from towns and cities isolated Japanese Americans then; now it serves to remove the history of incarceration from view from everyday life.“To maintain contact with this history…community organizers have established active pilgrimages to incarceration camp sites, including “virtual pilgrimages” during the past two years of the pandemic.”
Today, the centers of the Japanese American community persist in areas far from the remains of the camps. To maintain contact with this history, however, community organizers have established active pilgrimages to incarceration campsites, including “virtual pilgrimages” during the past two years of the pandemic. Such pilgrimages revitalize memory practices by bringing communities into contact with otherwise distant sites. Jasmine Reid, in discussing memory and infrastructure, notes how the otherwise banal Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, “requires a daily enactment of heritage practices to recall the horror” of its use in oppressive violence during civil rights marches in 1965. The sites of Japanese American incarceration camps, with their relative isolation, are more difficult to engage through “daily enactment.” This difficulty in turn threatens to remove this heritage from public view, necessitating deliberate efforts to keep memory alive.
Isolation as a marker of heritage
Minidoka was formally listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and incorporated into the National Park System in 2001. Today, however, only a small portion of the original footprint, approximately 500 of the original 33,000-acre camp, is formally part of the National Historic Site. The incongruency between the current National Historic Site and the camp’s original extent has meant that 42 out of the original 44 residential blocks lie partly or completely outside of the site boundaries, as do almost all of the agricultural lands. Still, the site is a powerful place for Japanese Americans to encounter this history of violence.
Arriving at Minidoka in 1942, Victor Ikeda remembered that its remoteness made him feel like he had reached, “the end of the world.”4Connie Y. Chiang, Nature behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 40. Echoing this sentiment, descendant Dan Sakura in 2021 stated that he feels connected to his ancestors in part due to isolation of the landscape, giving one a “sense of what it was like in the 1940s.” The isolation of the landscape today has been reinterpreted as a marker of the site’s integrity. The ability of descendants to connect to the land extends past the immediate structures of a historic site, such as a visitor center, but is instead linked to a sense of place. Walking through the landscape and feeling the isolation of the site can powerfully transport one to the past, a quality that can be severely transformed through the construction of infrastructure.
The placement of the Minidoka camp further led to proposals that threaten to impact and destroy the site as a place of memory and heritage practice. In 2009, LS Power, a New York-based private equity company, proposed the Southwest Intertie Project (SWIP) to connect Idaho with southern Nevada through 500 kV transmission lines and passing through the center of the Minidoka National Historic Site. When the National Park Service objected to the bifurcation of the site, LS Power proposed placing the powerlines directly over the entrance of the site, substantially disrupting the experience of survivors, descendants, and pilgrimages, which center on the park’s reconstructed honor roll, guard tower, and the original remains of the guard station and waiting room.“The isolation of the site, an important marker of how it is experienced by descendants, will be destroyed, disrupting pilgrimage practices.”
In response, heritage and community organizations worked with members of Congress to delay the project and reassess its impact on the site. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar directed the Bureau of Land Management to work with the National Park Service and consider alternative routes. Both government entities agreed to relocate the SWIP alignment to the west of Minidoka, and in 2010 the US Congress passed legislation to approve this relocation. However, in 2021, the land was again slated for energy development with the proposal, known as the Lava Ridge Wind Project. A massive wind farm extending throughout and around the historic footprint of Minidoka to carry energy to California markets. Three hundred and forty towers, as tall as 740 feet, would be placed within sight of the National Historic Site, impacting the viewshed and potentially disturbing archaeological resources related to the camp. Furthermore, the isolation of the site, an important marker of how it is experienced by descendants, will be destroyed, disrupting pilgrimage practices. Consequently, Minidoka survivors, descendants, the Friends of Minidoka, and other community partners are protesting the impact of the energy infrastructure on the site.
The routing of infrastructure through sites of importance to people of color is not a novel phenomenon. Indeed, it is precisely the marginality, both spatial and social, of such spaces that places them in the path of development. Minidoka’s placement occurred due to the undesirability of the land, making it ideal for use as an incarceration camp. Originally part of a Bureau of Reclamation site used to control the flow of the Snake River, the site had poor soil and water conditions. As Connie Chiang describes, the government explicitly hoped that Japanese labor would make the land fruitful for subsequent “white settlers.”5Chiang, Nature behind Barbed Wire, 47. Today, the construction of transmission lines and wind farms seeks to make the landscape productive for energy markets at the expense of connections to the history of the land.
Structures of violence against heritage
The case of Minidoka puts heritage communities in conflict with land managers and companies seeking to make landscapes profitable. This is a direct consequence of the WWII policy of removal and placement. The violence of erasure and destruction, which threatens key aspects of survivor and descendant communities’ relationship with the site, is further compounded by the distance between where communities live and Minidoka.
This distance creates the potential for fractious conflicts between local communities and heritage communities. In Idaho, the Lava Ridge Wind Project is framed by private equity firms as economically and environmentally beneficial. Opposition from Japanese American organizations to the current placement plans around Minidoka can be set into conflict with these ideals. Sustained engagement by heritage groups with communities has garnered local support in opposition to the wind project. However, this is not always the case. The positioning of Japanese American communities against local publics has occurred at many of the other camps.“Alongside the rise of anti-Asian violence, the degradation and erasure of sites like Minidoka serve to remove Asian American history from the American landscape.”
For instance, a proposal for the erection of a high-security fence around an airport, which would cut through the remains of the Tule Lake Camp in Modoc County, California, has sparked protests from Japanese Americans connected to the site. In Utah, a local museum and a descendant community organization have engaged in vociferous conflict over the removal of a previously buried historic monument dedicated to an incarceree shot and killed at the Topaz camp. There can be discord between those who manage the land of former incarceration camps, those who would make such lands profitable, and the far removed former incarcerees and their descendants. Such conflicts are the legacies of removal, setting in place structures of violence and conflict around sites of heritage. Alongside the rise of anti-Asian violence, the degradation and erasure of sites like Minidoka serves to remove Asian American history from the American landscape. In doing so it compounds narratives of foreignness and alienation. Furthermore, setting Asian American heritage as an impediment to forces of structural development can foster anti-Asian sentiments.
These conflicts are not, however, inevitable. The location of sites of incarceration presents opportunities to look for points of connection and potential solidarity. Organizations such as Tsuru for Solidarity have looked at the reuse of sites of WWII incarceration as migrant detention centers to draw parallels between past and present injustices. Not only does Tsuru mobilize incarceration camp heritage as narratives of protest, but they also partner with regional social justice organizations to advocate for diverse and locally relevant sets of issues. The geographic dispersion of WWII incarceration sites has been reframed to create national networks. Such coalition building represents the potential to counter the structural legacies of mass removal and confinement and the violence of erasure it threatens toward heritage practices.
Banner photo: A mess hall and barrack building at the Minidoka National Historic Site. Photo credit: Ryan Kozu.
→Erika Lee, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2019).