David and Goliath battle over Tule Lake

Tule Lake gravesites. photo by Dorey Nomiyama

Nearly a decade has gone by in the Tule Lake Committee’s fight to stop the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) and the Tulelake community’s plan to fence off and expand the Tulelake airfield that covers two-thirds of the concentration camp’s barracks area. Tule Lake was unique as the only one of the 10 War Relocation Authority concentration camps that was converted to a maximum-security prison to punish civil rights protesters who spoke out against the government’s injustice.

The effort to protect this rare and important civil rights site has been a long and challenging journey for the Tule Lake Committee. Had we walked away from this challenge in 2013, the massive three-mile long, eight-foot high, barbed-wire topped fence would have been built in 2015, creating a blight on the landscape and precluding preservation of the concentration camp that imprisoned over 27,000 Japanese Americans, where 331 men, women and children perished, due to illness, maltreatment and despair.

Throughout the postwar years, the federal government has had a major role in the erasure of the story of Japanese Americans imprisoned in the Tule Lake concentration camp. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation created a white landscape in the Klamath basin, allowing Jim Crow practices to exclude people of color from the lotteries for homesteads. The Bureau of Reclamation gave the homesteaders barrack buildings and gave the city of Tulelake the concentration camp’s land where the barracks once stood, so homesteaders would have an airfield for a local crop dusting business. Local homesteaders helped prepare the airfield grounds, leveling the concentration camp’s site by filling in the grid of ditches covering the barracks area. A group of Japanese Americans wondered how and why a huge hole was dug at the cemetery site, and a local homesteader described bulldozing the camp’s cemetery, using the earth from that sacred site to fill the ditches. “We liked the gravely texture,” he told the group, who were too shocked and horrified to ask if the homesteaders knew they bulldozed the cemetery.

The FAA has been oblivious to the fact Tule Lake is hallowed ground to Japanese Americans, and for over 50 years, given funds to build and maintain an airfield in the middle of this concentration camp. The Tule Lake Committee’s effort to protect the Tule Lake site has been a David and Goliath fight, trying to stop the FAA’s destructive “improvement” plans and urging the FAA to move the airfield and not destroy the concentration camp site.

We’ve anticipated completion and public review of mandatory environmental studies required by state and federal law, that for over two years, have been repeatedly postponed by the FAA and Modoc County, the airfield’s operator. In October 2022, the FAA informed us that those studies would again be postponed to allow the FAA to resume mandatory National Historic Preservation Act planning and decision-making for the airfield site. That process, termed Section 106 review, began in 2016 and was abandoned after a mismanaged 18-month long conflict-resolution process that primarily served to amplify conflict between stakeholders.

In his Day of Remembrance Proclamation last year, President Joe Biden stated a commitment to preserving Japanese American incarceration sites. We hope the Department of Transportation and the FAA will consider the President’s sentiments and commit to maintaining rather than desecrating the Tule Lake concentration camp site.

“Preserving incarceration sites as national parks and historic landmarks is proof of our Nation’s commitment to facing the wrongs of our past, to healing the pain still felt by survivors and their descendants, and to ensuring that we always remember why it matters that we never stop fighting for equality and justice for all. My Administration is committed to maintaining these national parks and landmarks for future generations and to combating xenophobia, hate, and intolerance.” — President Biden’s DOR proclamation, signed 2/18/2022

In 2017, nearly 40,000 Japanese American and Japanese American organizations urged the FAA and Modoc County to protect the Tule Lake concentration camp, not destroy it. https://www.change.org/p/chair-modoc-county-board-of-supervisors
Five years have gone by since that outcry. We again ask the FAA to consider President Biden’s words and to initiate a feasibility study, a first step in planning how and where to move this primitive rural airfield — recognizing that it’s possible to move an airfield, but that it is impossible to move a historic site.

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Update on Tule Lake’s Preservation

Disputes with the FAA
For years the Tule Lake Committee has argued with the FAA, that Japanese Americans have a spiritual and emotional connection to the concentration camp site, a view the FAA rejected. However, in recent months, the FAA has reversed its position, finally acknowledging that Tule Lake is a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) that has deep personal significance to Japanese Americans. In addition, after years of the Tule Lake Committee fighting to stop the FAA’s proposed fence, the FAA has acknowledged the fence project will have a negative, or adverse impact on the historic site.

We are encouraged the FAA has reversed itself and recognizes, as the Tule Lake Committee has continually asserted, that the Tulelake airfield fence will desecrate a place that is deeply meaningful to the Japanese American community. Although threat to the concentration camp site is a constant, the FAA’s acknowledging the site as a TCP forces an awareness that Japanese Americans have an emotional, spiritual and personal relationship to the site.

While it is an incremental gain, this is part of the continuing challenge of fighting the FAA’s deeply ingrained institutional biases.

In 2023, the FAA will continue its renewed consultation with multiple stakeholders as required by the National Historic Preservation Act, to consider how to preserve the contested 359-acre civil rights site. Thus far, the FAA has refused to discuss moving the airfield, offering the deficient mitigation proposals of no barbed wire on the proposed fence, and posting FAA signage to interpret the site.

Litigation against City of Tulelake and Oklahoma Modoc Nation
It’s been over four years since the Tule Lake Committee filed a request for an injunction to stop the city of Tulelake from giving away the Tulelake airfield located in the center of the WWII Tule Lake concentration camp. At a city council meeting in July 2018, Tulelake’s leaders announced a decision to give the concentration camp lands to the Modoc Nation in Oklahoma, after the Tribe’s representatives promised to develop aviation on the site.

The Tule Lake Committee’s pro bono legal team of civil rights attorneys Mark Merin, Yoshinori Himel and Tule Lake descendant Paul Masuhara continue motion-work and court appearances in state and federal courts, challenging the city of Tulelake’s airfield giveaway. Adding to the complexity of the litigation, the Tribe in Oklahoma is dealing with an unresolved internal leadership dispute, with two separately elected Councils and a dis-enrollment crisis that expelled half of the Tribe’s 555 members. The BIA has recognized but not intervened in this dispute.

The Tule Lake Committee’s pending federal appeal in the Ninth Circuit, Tule Lake Committee v. FAA, et. al., addresses whether Japanese Americans have the right to challenge the airfield giveaway. The appeal awaits oral argument in 2023. Our state court litigation, Tule Lake Committee v. Follis, et. al. opposes transfer of the Tulelake airfield to a sovereign entity that claims it cannot be sued in state or federal court and is not required to comply with state or federal regulation. In that suit, we await judicial response to the Modoc Nation’s effort to dismiss our case.

Side note on the Tule Lake Pilgrimage
The Tule Lake pilgrimage committee has begun meeting to consider organizing an in-person pilgrimage in 2023. Given the intimacy of the Tule Lake pilgrimage that involves four-days of traveling together on 56-person tour buses, living together in college dorms, and eating and socializing in the cafeteria and meeting rooms, we remain concerned about viral transmission and implementing protocols to protect the health of the most vulnerable.

Having just concluded another holiday season, we wait to see if gathering together as we have in previous decades will be safe and COVID protocols manageable.

We look forward to gathering again, and wish all a healthy and joyous holiday season.

Barbara Takei writes from Sacramento, Calif. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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