Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp #SOL22

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.

NBA finalist &
Printz honor book
We are Not Free

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.

8 thoughts on “Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp #SOL22”

  1. “Benevolent master narratives remain” is a great phrase and I am so glad to read you taking on this big subject by studying one place. Especially powerful are your comments about how they tell you many school groups come, yet you grew up in the state and never visited, and it is obvious most people do not know- or want to know. You tell us with your visit and reflection that we cannot remain locked into our “shining city on a hill” blinders of viewing history.
    I have never visited a Japanese American internment camp but I have seen several exhibits about them, one of art made by the people who lived in them. I have also read personal accounts and historical fiction about this part of our history. In this age of history- whitewashing and inconvenient truth denying, I hope your piece will find a larger audience. Maybe you could submit an edited version as a letter to the editor of a paper? Argue, as a teacher, for more students to receive this education?

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  2. Glenda,
    I was draw to your piece as my 7th graders in VA read George Taki’s graphic novel as part of their WWII book clubs. May I include your blog post on the padlet of resources for further reading? I think they also would find it interested that the place like the one George lived in during WWII can be visited today in Idaho. I especially like the Frank Kitimoto quote and I need to read the book you mention at the end, maybe an addition to our unit. Thanks for sharing about this part of our country, a part of our history we all need to know about. I also like Fran’s idea. Your piece is strong. More should read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sally, I’d be honored to have you include the post. I have more photos if you’re interested in those. The film I linked to is quite good, and it directly addresses recent threats to Muslim Americans, which I like as this makes the past more relevant to the present.

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  3. Glenda, I admire the way you live, travel, embrace life and all it has to offer. I have tremendous respect for the way that you stand up for historical truths and the preservation and good maintenance of the places you travel, especially the historical landmarks and buildings. And…..I love the way you share your travels with us. We can go there without a plane ticket because you are so generous in sharing all that you do.

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  4. Once again, I am loving and agreeing with all Kim said right above my comment! Your posts show that you are living such a rich and thoughtful life and you share your travels and ideas with us. I recently took part in a week long Long Island Writing Project workshop where we were thinking of our own family stories and how they fit into the greater US story. The Japanese internment is such an ugly chapter in America’s story. I need to learn more.

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  5. This piece is a really clear reckoning with how we tell our history. I am glad to hear that the signage is changing – and I love the Frank Kitamoto quote! – but you are right that challenging the “benevolent master narrative” is an ongoing project. I hope that more students are allowed? invited? encouraged? to visit this camp and that we are increasingly able to reckon with our history. Thank goodness for those like George Takei who speak up and speak out – and for those like you who amplify their voices and insist that we not look away.

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  6. Glenda, I like your new blog, beautiful. Thanks for sharing the story of Minidoka. I appreciate your telling the story about the signage. Thanks for bringing it up with the director, and for sharing the story with your readers.

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