From the Archive

[link to this page]

Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

Incarceration and Reservations: Japanese Americans Intersect with Native Americans

Native American at Poston incarceration camp, Arizona, 1942, pd-i37-00434
"This country has had a history of forced evacuation and detention of non-white Americans."
   -- Bernie Whitebear, United Indians of All Tribes Foundation

Politically oppressed people of color share storylines in American history. Asian immigrants and their descendants were subjected to legal discrimination designed to diminish them as individuals and economic competitors. African Americans experienced as much and worse. The story of how the first Americans were driven from their lands, traditions, and livelihoods stands as a terrible precursor for the government's treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The connection is more direct than some would suspect. Like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, charged with managing the country's displaced Native American population, the War Relocation Authority managed the displaced Japanese American population by penning them in desolate government-controlled territories. The connection does not end there.

In western states, Japanese Americans occasionally intersected with various Native American tribes before the war. Densho interviewee Kara Kondo explained how Japanese Americans leased land from the Yakama tribe in central Washington: "The reservation land was quite open land, although it was under the Yakama Nation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had their land managers, and they had allotted the reservation land to various Native American families....It was an open land, and leasing was made easier for the Japanese."

Rick Sato's family also leased farmland from the Yakama. He recalls:

Densho: Now your farm, did your parents lease the farmland?

Sato: Yeah, it was leased land from the Indian and most of the Japanese, I would say, was leasing land from Indian. And you know when you rent Indian land, it involves about ten ownership sometimes. Because the Indians got a tenth owner and another one's got another tenth and so forth. So we had to -- it was quite a mess trying to get all their signatures in the springtime to lease the land.

Densho: But what about the relations between the Japanese farming families and the Indians who were leasing the land?

Sato: We had good relationship with the Indians. And in fact the Indians told me that they would rather lease to the Japanese than to anybody else... I heard that many, many times over there. I guess they're closer to Japanese than, you know, hakujins [Caucasians].

Densho: So, did you ever experience any kind of prejudice from the Indians toward you because you were Japanese?

Sato: No, I have never experienced that from Indians. I might have heard some, very few or very seldom being called "Jap". But otherwise they were really -- they were okay.

When the WRA established ten incarceration camps for Japanese Americans in 1942, they sited the facilities on remote lands under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The two Arizona camps were erected on Indian reservations, over the objections of the tribal councils. Confinement and Ethnicity, an archaeological study published by the National Park Service states, "The Gila River site was approved, in spite of objections by the Gila River Indian tribe, on March 18, 1942."1 About establishing the Poston (or Parker) WRA camp, the National Park Service says:

The Colorado River Indian Reservation Tribal Council opposed the use of their land for a relocation center, on the grounds that they did not want to participate in inflicting the same type of injustice as they had suffered. However, the tribe was overruled by the Army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In a verbal agreement the WRA turned over administration of the center to the BIA. The BIA considered the relocation center an opportunity to develop farm land on the reservation with the benefit of military funds and a large labor pool. The WRA did not take full control of the center until December 1943.2

A 2008 documentary entitled Passing Poston: An American Story explores this little-known aspect of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. At Poston federal officials took advantage of the "large labor pool" to improve the Colorado River Indian Reservation for future inhabitants. The plan was conceived by John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Unlike the nine other internment camps, Poston was unique and was built with a very different purpose. It served as a place to house thousands of Japanese detainees but also the infrastructure created by and for them served to recruit more Native Americans from surrounding smaller reservations to the much larger and sparsely populated Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) reservation, after the war.

The Japanese detainees held at the three Poston Camps were used as laborers to build adobe schools, do experimental farming, and construct an irrigation system that could later be used by the Native Americans, thus aiding the settlement of the area as planned by the Office of Indian Affairs (known today as the Bureau of Indian Affairs).

When the Japanese detainees were released in 1945, attention turned to settling the camps with Native Americans. "Colonists" (as the government referred to them) from the Hopi and Navajo tribes as well as other tribes living along the Colorado River tributaries. These people, in turn, moved into barracks built for the Japanese detainees. The colonists were recruited by the Office of Indian Affairs and lured by promises of fertile farmland and plentiful water. They joined the Mohave who had lived on the reservation since its creation in 1865, and the Chemehuevi who arrived shortly after 1865. The colonists found a working canal system to irrigate farmland, school buildings, and many other necessities for their relocation. For some from the less developed areas of other reservations, it was a step up with running water and the opportunity to farm.3

The premiere of Passing Poston was held in February 2008 at the Colorado River Indian Reservation, with Native Americans in attendance. A Los Angeles Times reporter quoted Dennis Patch, an educator at the Colorado River Reservation tribal museum, as saying many Indians felt empathy for the Japanese Americans. The tribes themselves had been herded up and forced onto the Colorado River Indian reservation when it was established in 1865 to open land for white settlers. "They saw people captured and put some place they didn't want to be, and they understood that," Patch said.4

Authorities discouraged contact between the Native Americans and Japanese Americans in the Arizona camps, but several Densho interviewees recall interacting with Indians living nearby. At Gila River, Helen Tanigawa Tsuchiya remembers a "three-year-old little girl, Indian girl, used to ride her pony with her grandpa, and come up to the barbed wire. And then all the little kids would go over and they'd try to touch the pony and they had a real good time." The little Indian girl went on to be a nurse on the reservation, and Helen met her on a visit to the site of her wartime confinement.

Chiyoko Yagi remembers her three years at Poston concluding with new tenants moving in: "We went in July of '42 and went out August of '45. My sister-in-law wanted to start school, and we wanted to get her back in time for high school. But my father-in-law couldn't come back because he wasn't free, he wasn't cleared for California... So he had to wait until they got the clearance, and by the time he left, there were Indians moving into the barracks around him."

Underscoring the connection between the camps and the reservations is a detail of one government employee's career. After serving as the director of the War Relocation Authority for the four years the camps were in operation, Dillon S. Meyer went into managing public housing and then, from 1950 to 1953, worked as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

One of the most tragic aspects of the mass removal and incarceration during World War II is the suffering inflicted on the nearly 900 Native Alaskans who were taken from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. What was initially intended as a humanitarian evacuation from an active combat zone became a nightmare for the Aleut families. Except for 50 people sent to the Seattle area, they were held for years in southeastern Alaska in squalid abandoned mining and cannery sites. Insufficient drinkable water and lack of medical care contributed to epidemics that raged through the crowded, underheated, and unsanitary dormitories. More than 10 percent of the evacuated natives died. When the Aleuts were allowed to return north, they found their villages burned, boats missing, and their sacred artifacts defaced or stolen. The government made no effort to compensate them for their losses.

Densho interviewee Yosh Nakagawa was moved from Seattle as a third-grader and incarcerated at Minidoka, Idaho. There he recalls befriending an Aleut boy, though he was ignorant of the boy's plight:

Nakagawa: Everybody was of the heritage of being Japanese. The irony is I didn't even understand enough to know why the Indians of Alaska, who weren't Japanese, were my classmates. I didn't even understand that significance. And his name had nothing to look like mine, his name was Speardon Hunter.

Densho: And he was a classmate of yours?

YN: He was a classmate, lived behind my barrack.

Densho: Did you ever interact with him?

YN: Absolutely. He was a hero. We had no sleds or anything. When, when snow came to Minidoka, [his parents] made a sled, and we were the dogs and we pulled the sled. As a child, it's clear as a bell. None of our parents could make a sled that the Eskimos might have used for every day, but I never understood why they were there until after I studied [the internment story].

Densho: He was just another playmate of yours?

YN: That's right. But we didn't, not all, treat him well. The Japanese, they looked down upon them, and I remember that feeling of being outside the community.

Densho: And through what kind of actions did you know that people looked down on upon them?

YN: Because their mother and father didn't have friends. And some of my classmates didn't like him to be on our team because he was different.

Densho: So how did you make sense of that?

YN: I couldn't, I didn't, make sense of it. I wish I could have said I was so smart that I knew the... no, he was my childmate playmate. He was my friend and that's it... He came and we played. In camp we had marbles. For some reason, some of the parents must have thought it was important, they took marbles with them, so we played marbles, and he was very good.

Densho: Did you ever have conversations about what Alaska was like?

YN: It never dawned on me. I didn't know Alaska from Siberia. All I knew, clearly in my mind, he wasn't Japanese.

When a congressional commission was formed to research the Japanese American incarceration and consider the case for redress, commissioners heard testimony from not only Nikkei speakers but also Caucasian supporters (and some opponents). At the Seattle hearings held by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in September 1981, one person who spoke in favor of redress legislation was Bernie Whitebear, the executive director of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. Whitebear was a lifelong activist for Native American rights. In his testimony he remarked, "People may ask why a Native American would be interested in this issue." He then named several reasons: in times of peace and stress the government must protect all people's Constitutional rights; Native Americans -- the Aleuts -- were also deprived of their civil rights without due process of law; schoolchildren cannot be taught that the U.S. honors fundamental civil liberties unless the government acknowledges and atones for the wrong done to Japanese Americans. Whitebear also pointed out what no Native American can ever forget: "This country has had a history of forced evacuation and detention of non-white Americans."

1. Jeffery F. Burton et al., Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites (Tucson, AZ: Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, 1999), p. 61.

2. Ibid., p. 215.

3. Website for Passing Poston: An American Story, Joe Fox and James Nubile, directors.

4. Teresa Watanabe, Celebrating a Shared History: Indians Laud WWII Japanese American Internees Who Developed Their Land," Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2008.

To create a free archive user account, go to:

back to top

Copyright ©1997-2015 Densho. All Rights Reserved.