Snow Country Prison Memorial, Bismarck, North Dakota

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A Snow Country Prison Memorial mock-up. courtesy of MASS Design Group

It was a warm fall day in September 2023, at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota, where thousands of Native people gathered for the college’s renowned international powwow. We are a distinct group of non-Natives. Brian Niiya, David Koda, Barbara Takei, Toso Himel, Carl Takei and I moved through the friendly throng to the powerful beat of the drums and song, headed to a courtyard adjacent to a large 19th century brick building the college had repurposed. Here we joined other members of our “Snow Country Prison Memorial” Planning Committee: UTTC President Dr. Leander R. McDonald, College Relations Director Brent Kleinjan and College Archivist Dennis J. Neumann. Mayrah Udvardi and Joseph Kunkel, architects with MASS Design Group, also attended. Committee member Rev. Duncan Ryūken Williams and architect Jeffrey Mansfield were unable to attend.

We have come to Bismarck to celebrate the start of construction on a memorial to Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during World War II at Fort Lincoln, a U.S. Justice Department internment camp for enemy aliens. Once the site where my father and close to 2,000 other Japanese American men were held, the entire campus has been transformed by Native people for education. We chose to be here at the time of the powwow to merge its cultural energy with our launch of the “Snow Country Prison Japanese American Internment Memorial.”

Commonly referred to as a “groundbreaking” ceremony, Dr. McDonald reminded us that we were gathering for a “ground blessing” ceremony in gratitude to Mother Earth from which all life emanates. Standing Rock elder, Elliott Ward, acknowledged the Four Directions, gently wafted sage on all those present while the drums reverberated in the earth beneath our feet. The college chose this 850 square feet of land to honor the memory of the Japanese American men who were held here between 1941 and 1946.

Over a year ago after sending out a request for proposals for the design of the Memorial, we were stunned to receive a proposal from the world-famous architectural firm, MASS Design. Even more auspicious, Joseph Kunkel, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and Jeffrey Mansfield a Japanese American, would be the lead architects for the project.

In discussion with the Japanese American members of the Committee and UTTC officials, the final design of the memorial reflects the unique sensitivity to cultural symbolism and meaning for both the Native American and Japanese American story. The final product will represent the powerful outcome of a unique cross community effort.

The design features two, five feet high parallel walls inspired by the Japanese pottery concept of “kintsugi,” where broken pieces are repaired with gold-dusted lacquer to bring beauty to its history rather than something to be hidden or discarded. The names of every Japanese American internee held at the site will be engraved on 100-year-old slate tablets that were removed from the prison building roof and will be placed on the south wall. The north wall will chronicle the story of Native people of North Dakota. I think of the students, visitors and pilgrims walking between the walls, perhaps searching for familiar names or learning about Japanese American and Native American history as the “gold” that heals and repairs the fractures caused by racism and oppression.

There will be an outside amphitheater where people can sit and reflect, or participate in events. Space for a drumming circle sits at the point where the walls end. Here I imagine both Native drummers and Japanese American taiko drummers will offer rousing music in the spirit of healing and solidarity.

The name of the memorial chosen by the Committee was inspired by one of my father’s haiku poems written while he was interned at Bismarck:

Ikusa hate-shi
Nao yukiguni no
Takkyo kana

The war has ended
But I’m still in the
Snow Country Prison

Itaru Ina
Ft. Lincoln, 1946

The Snow Country Prison Memorial is scheduled to be completed in 2024, weather permitting. Generous funding and support has been provided by United Tribes Technical College, the National Park Service Confinement Sites grant program and from MASS Design Group.

Fundraising from the Japanese American community begins with this announcement. We are hoping to raise $250,000 as part of our contribution to the project. Donations can be sent to: United Tribes Technical College, Attn: Brent Kleinjan, 3315 University Drive, Bismarck, ND 58504. For more information and video for donations, please go to our UTTC Website designed by Tamiko Nimura at https://www.givecampus.com/campaigns/34493/donations/new.

If you or anyone you know has a family member who was incarcerated at Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, N.D., or would like to be notified of future events at the site, please contact: Satsuki Ina at satsukina44@gmail.com or 935 Pomona Ave., Albany, CA 94706.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. was born in the Tule Lake Segregation Center.Her upcoming book, “The Poet and the Silk Girl: A Memoir of Love, Imprisonment, and Protest,” will be available March 26, 2024. She can be reached at satsukina44@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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