‘Memorial to all who suffered’: survivors protest wind farm near Japanese American incarceration site
Credit: Andrew Buncombe in Seattle | Sun 7 May 2023 | theguardian.com ~~
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Paul Tomita was just four when his family was interned. He was too young to remember Franklin D Roosevelt, then president, issuing the executive order that saw him and at least 125,000 others of Asian descent packed onto blacked-out trains and sent to prison camps during the second world war.
But his memories come alive when he recalls the hard, clattering train filled with fear and anxiety.
“They did not tell us anything. So there were just these crazy rumours,” says Tomita, now 84.
“There was a rumour that once we got off the train … they’d dug a huge pit and they were going to drive us there, line us up, shoot us in the back of the head and dump us in this huge hole.”
In one of the darker episodes of America’s history, people were held in 10 main centres across western states and in the south. Star Trek actor George Takei and his family were held at a camp in Arkansas. Tomita’s was near Minidoka, 165 miles east of Boise, Idaho, that held 13,000 people. It was set on a piece of remote, high desert, unprotected from the elements. His family was held there for two years before his father was recruited to work for the US intelligence services and they were transferred to Arlington, Virginia.
For Tomita and others detained at Minidoka – which was named a National Historic Site in 2001 – the camp has long been a place of pilgrimage and a critical, if jolting, reminder of the past.
Groups such as the Friends of Minidoka have used the site, which preserves several original features including a wind-blasted barracks and a guard tower, to educate visitors. The group organises an annual pilgrimage – this year’s will be in July – and many others travel here on their own.
Now, Minidoka survivors say this hallowed site is under threat from a proposed wind farm that would dramatically reshape the area.
‘Minidoka is a memorial to all who suffered’
The proposed Lava Ridge wind farm is a major renewable energy project that would build up to 400, 740ft-tall wind turbines – “100ft higher than the Seattle Space Needle” according to Tomita – as close as two miles north of Minidoka. The wind farm would produce up to 1,000MW and cover 197,474 acres miles on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and opponents say its presence would irrevocably change the sacred, austere nature of the former camp.
The debate over the wind farm has put into stark relief the challenges for the US and other nations as they balance a rapid transition to renewable energy with cultural, environmental or other local concerns that can conflict with such vast, landscape altering projects.
The US has invested billions of dollars in green infrastructure and backs projects on public lands, with a hope of achieving 80% renewable energy generation by 2030. Projects like Lava Ridge will be key to meeting these goals and mitigating a worsening climate crisis.
Opponents of Lava Ridge say they support green energy. They simply believe the project, which will be operated by Magic Valley Energy, a subsidiary of the New York-based LS Power, could find a better home. They point out the BLM controls 10m acres of public land in Idaho alone. The BLM, for their part, has said the proposed location meets several criteria, including transmission line and reliable wind, but prefers a scaled back option for the wind farm project.
Survivors and other members of the Japanese-American community have been lobbying officials and showing up at public meetings. Some have been carrying posters declaring “I am not a tourist – I am a survivor”, a reference to part of the project’s Environmental Impact Statement that included Minidoka alongside famous local tourist hot-spots, such as the Craters of the Moon National Monument. To the survivors, it implied Minidoka was a tourist destination, rather than a pilgrimage site.
Multiple survivors and their supporters say the turbines would destroy the feeling of desolation that is integral to how they remember it.
“Minidoka is a memorial to all those who suffered at the site,” said Robyn Achilles, the executive director for Friends of Minidoka. “Survivors and their descendants make emotional pilgrimages to Minidoka where they remember, heal and share stories to ensure these violations of civil liberties do not happen again. Minidoka is our past and our future.”
Other groups that work to document Japanese-American incarceration have similarly denounced the plans.
“Minidoka is one of the few federally recognized sites of Asian American history in the United States and it is essential that it be protected as a place for learning and healing for future generations. The proposed wind farm would gravely jeopardise the views and solemn nature of the site,” said Naomi Ostwald Kawamura, the executive director of Densho, a non-profit focused on preserving such histories. Consider a similar project being proposed near 9/11’s Ground Zero or Arlington Cemetery, Kawamura pointed out. “It would be unthinkable to desecrate them with a project and size and scope of Lava Ridge.”
‘We weren’t broken people’
The Minidoka standoff has revived painful memories for those who survived the internment years. Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 in 1942 in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, a period of fear and xenophobia when anyone of Japanese ancestry was deemed a national security threat. A swathe of the US west was termed an exclusion zone and tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans and others were incarcerated. Two-thirds were US citizens. They had no right of appeal.
Across the nation, an estimated 1,600 prisoners died during captivity, either the result of harsh conditions or else shot by military guards for allegedly disobeying orders.
The survivors say people of German and Italian descent were also interned, but not in such numbers. They suffered in particular, they argue, because of racism. The country did not formally apologise until 1988, when a bill signed by Ronald Reagan provided $20,000 in compensation to each survivor.
Mary Abo and her family were among those held at Minidoka. They had lived in Juneau, Alaska, and were taken south by ship and put on trains at Puyallup, Washington. She and her elder sister, Alice, waited 50 years before revisiting; the memories were too raw. But when they eventually did, the experience was empowering.
“It’s good to see we weren’t broken people,” says Abo, 82, who now lives in Seattle. “I’ve known people say, ‘No, I would never go back. Because it was just too painful’. So it was good to go and feel how it was and to know we survived.”
Prior to the war, she says, her Japan-born parents planned to return there. After its conclusion, Abo’s family returned to Juneau and stayed. Abo, who later studied at the University of Washington and worked as a teacher, says when they returned to Alaska they felt deep shame.
“We lived in two worlds, my home world where it was okay to be Japanese, because everybody was Japanese,” she says. “And then the world which was white, where I went to school.”
She adds: “I always felt I didn’t really feel American, because I didn’t look American, as portrayed in the books. And the history books never talked about the incarceration. It just talked about the bombing [at Pearl Harbor].”
Experts say the trauma of incarceration passed down generations. When the families left the camps, they returned to find their homes and businesses gone. Some say they were looked at with even more disdain by white neighbours.
Erin Shigaki, an artist whose maternal grandparents met at Minidoka, says adults may have put on a brave face for children. But people were often depressed and scared.
“All of these things, run through our bloodline,” says Shigaki, who co-chairs a committee that organises an annual pilgrimage. She says that trauma can manifest in behaviours such as hoarding, a common trait among Japanese Americans of that generation.
“The experience of losing everything they worked for, provokes feelings that there can never be enough and every last scrap must be saved,” she says.
What lies ahead
The windswept Minidoka, located at an elevation of 4,000ft, is freezing in winter and blistering hot in summer. The BLM operates a visitor centre, situated amid large stretches of empty land.
The future of Lava Ridge remains uncertain, with the final shape of the project still under review. The BLM has been inviting public comments, a process that ended on 20 April, with a final environment report due out later this year. Kasey Prestwich, a project manager at BLM, says it will review all the public comments before making a final assessment. “Our plan is to have that completed by late fall or early winter,” he says.
The BLM has said it would prefer one of two alternatives: one would scale back the overall size of the project and have 378 turbines. The other would involve 269 turbines and reduce the visual impact at the historic site itself.
Magic Valley Energy said it had looked at other sites for the project and was seeking to involve the local community, but that they prefer the current site. Amy Schutte, a spokesperson for the company, said in a statement: “The BLM-preferred alternatives show how the public process can lead to a compromise all sides can appreciate.”
What will happen to the plan remains unclear. In March, the lower chamber of the Idaho state legislature unanimously passed a resolution condemning Lava Ridge, saying much of the energy would be sold out of state. Legislators also claimed it would produce no more than 20 full time jobs.
Asked whether he and other Minidoka survivors were standing in the way of America’s transition to green energy, Tomita scoffs.
“What happened to us … we can’t move that site. That’s where it happened,” he says. “The windmill, they could move it anywhere.”
Japanese Americans object to proposed wind farm at WWII incarceration site
May 22, 2023, All Things Considered
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