Saving History's Dark Side

An effort is on to preserve the Minidoka Internment Camp and the history it embodies

| June 28, 2007

On June 24 Chuck Lindberg, the last of the soldiers to first raise the American flag at Iwo Jima, died in Edina, Minnesota. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, Lindberg was not captured in the iconic photo of six young men hoisting a flagpole against a gray-white sky. He was among the small and largely forgotten group that had flown the flag hours before.

The image of that second flag-raising still reverberates through the country's historical narratives, weaving a tale of "good overcoming evil." But Lindberg's recent death reveals the tenuously constructed, ephemeral nature of that narrative. And as the country loses those irreplaceable eye-witnesses to our "good" history, so too are we losing a generation of Americans whose lives testify to its darkest moments.

The politics of recounting the past has always been in part a method of forgetting, and hidden underneath the swollen feelings of patriotism from WWII lies Executive Order 9066, which enacted the involuntary relocation of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans residing on the West Coast from 1942-45. Spread across ten camps in seven states, the internment camps still remain at the margins of American history.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private nonprofit group, hopes to combat the fading legacy of internment. In its magazine, Preservation, the trust lists the Minidoka Internment Camp in Jerome County, Idaho, as one of "America's 11 Most Endangered Places" for 2007. Without a visitors center, the camp stands defenseless to looters, and plans to build a large animal-production farm in the area are stoking fears that Minidoka will not be a site of history for future generations.

The camp was designated as a national monument in 2001, when 72 of the original 950 acres were put aside for preservation by the National Park Service (NPS). The 20-year plan for camp restoration includes the reconstruction of an entire "residential" block, though five years in, Minidoka still lacks visitor facilities and its superintendent has no staff.

The pressing need to capture the stories of former internees has led to fruitful relationships between the NPS and Japanese-American organizations. In order to document the personal histories of many of the camp's approximately 9,000 residents, park superintendent Neil King has enlisted the help of the Seattle-based group Densho to record the oral histories of  internees who are still alive.

By the same token, the commitment to preservation and documentation at Minidoka will hopefully serve as a monument to American civil liberties. Jim Azumano, president of Friends of Minidoka, a group of internees and their relatives, tells Preservation that "Minidoka plays a role in the evolution of civil liberties... a fundamental part of the American way of life."

And so, even after President Reagan signed an official apology and authorized reparations in 1988, Minidoka reminds us of how an unwanted chapter of the American past speaks not to popular myth, but to the country's founding tenets. "This is not a Japanese-American story," surviving Minidoka internee Yosh Nakagawa says. "This is an American story. Let us not forget it, so that today and tomorrow we don't make the same mistake."

Go there >>Inside America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places: The National Park Service Vows to Restore Idaho's Minidoka Internment Camp

Go there, too >> Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project

And there >> Friends of Minidoka

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