Eight guard towers stood sentry around the perimeter of the camp, which existed not for safety of the incarcerees but rather to ensure that no one escaped. Rarely used at Minidoka, the guard towers served as symbols of imprisonment during World War II.–Placard at Minidoka Historical Site near Jerome, Idaho
The War Relocation Authority did not use the eight guard towers at the Minidoka Concentration camp. They did not need to man the sentry towers. Instead, these structures stood as a “symbol of imprisonment” for the Japanese Americans imprisoned there during WWII.
These days only a few structures remain, but the work of preserving memory goes on under the direction of Kurt Ikeda, directory of interpretation and education, himself a descendent of interred Japanese Americans. Visitors to the site will find updated narratives offering a more factual and accurate telling of life in the camp, but vestiges of what I call benevolent master narratives also remain, such as the signage near the camp baseball field that depicts the game more as a leisurely pastime rather than an opportunity to leave camp and escape the harsh living conditions there.
I spoke to the park director about the site’s poorly maintained trails and signage problems during our visit last Friday and learned new signs will arrive and be installed soon. This is good news. For several years I’ve believed many of our national historical sites need a reckoning with history and the narrative framing they present to visitors. At Minidoka I see that transformation in progress. This includes a new visitor center. Above the door to the new visitor center visitors notice a quote:
This is not just a Japanese American story, but an American story with implications for the world.–Frank Kitamoto
We watched a George Taki narrated video about America’s Japanese American concentration camps and witnessed the stories survivors shared about losing all their wealth when ordered to the camps; about the harsh living conditions, including blazing heat in the summer and sub-zero temperatures in the winter. This desert corner of southeast Idaho on the Snake River plateau is a land of extremes with winds rivaling those of the Great Dust Bowl high plains.
I asked the park director about student field trips during the school year. He assured me many students visit the site; however, even though I’ve lived in Idaho more than thirty years, last Friday was my first trip to Minidoka, and my husband grew up only a few miles from the camp and had never seen it. My children did not take a field trip to Minidoka during their school years.
We live 1:45 from the site, and I-84 near the camp is a hub for frequent school trips to Boise and numerous points between here and there. But learning history, especially history that contrasts with the shining city on the hill, manifest destiny myths many prefer, especially these days, gets benched (if I may borrow a sports metaphor) when it’s game time.
Minidoka offers a curriculum for educators, and we have many excellent books available for educators to use when teaching about this tragic moment in our past, including Traci Chee’s excellent We Are Not Free, a book I found myself contemplating as I walked the trails at Minidoka.