We gathered over the Memorial Day weekend as special guests of United Tribes Technical College, located on the grounds of Fort Lincoln, Bismarck, N.D.
This was one of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) internment sites that operated between 1941 to 1946, holding approximately 1,800 Japanese and 1,500 Germans. Overall, about 6,000 Germans and Japanese from 19 Latin American countries were also held at various DOJ camps, as well as thousands of German and Italian men, women and children from the United States.
This gathering was partly funded by the National Park Service through the Japanese American Confinement Site Grant Program, with matching funds from United Tribes, Hesono O Production, German American Internee Coalition, the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS), the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project and the North Dakota Museum of Art.
Satsuki Ina and Karen Ebel were among the organizers whose skill fully focused this conference so that not even a minute was wasted. This three-day planning conference was a powerful reminder of how a diverse group of people with various interests, perspectives and needs can share and collaborate toward a common goal of establishing a fitting memorial at the site.
The internee “voices” were provided by former Japanese American internees Hank Naito, Bill Nishimura, Art Ogami, Tak Tsujita and Junichi Yamamoto. Unfortunately, the German American internees who attended the initial meeting in 2003 are no longer with us, making this project even more important. Nevertheless, German Americans were represented by their family members, who vowed to continue the work begun in 2003.
The gathering also marshaled scholars Steven Fox and Tetsuden Kashima and writers such as John Christgau, Ursula Potter and Heidi Donald. Others who were there to lend their expertise on a variety topics were Rosalyn Tonai of NJAHS, Grace Shimizu of Campaign for Justice and Barbara Takei for her work to preserve the Tule Lake camp site.
The group of over 50 people spent an exhaustive three days working together to bring various strands of Japanese American, German American, Latin American, and Native American perspectives together over what to preserve and how to interpret the Alien Enemy Control Program and the site of Fort Lincoln itself.
Perhaps the most powerful, moving and evocative experience of the three days was the “Wiping of the Tears” ceremony conducted by a spiritual leader who came in all the way from Montana. This ceremony is intended for those mourning loss — loss of all kinds — and also as we were cleansed and the tears wiped away… to help us “see clearly” so that we can continue our work in the future.
As the ceremony ended, all of the former internees were given a gift of a hand-stitched blanket, symbolizing becoming one of the “elders and family members” of the tribe. The internees were stunned, appreciative, and no doubt experienced a sense of closure after 65 years.
Art Ogami probably said it best as he tried to retrace in his mind and in the barracks the place he called “home” in 1945. He clearly seemed to be at peace and felt a sense of closure when he said, “I feel like I have come home after 65 years.”
Junichi Yamamoto, accompanied by Bret, his grandson, said, “I never thought I would ever return to Bismarck in my lifetime… I’m glad I came… to remember.”
Wayne Maeda is a professor of ethnic studies at California State University, Sacramento.