Minidoka Pilgrimage

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2015 Minidoka Pilgrimage participants.

A contingent of past and present Alaskans arrived in Twin Falls, Idaho, on June 25th of this year to join fellow participants on an annual pilgrimage to the nearby Minidoka National Historic Site. We made this journey to ensure that the stories and memories of Alaskan internees would be shared and recorded for future generations. We also wished to honor the hardships those incarcerated had endured and to renew memories of those who had passed on.

Among the sagebrush and blowing dust of a desolate southern Idaho plain, the Minidoka internment site was established during World War II. After 70 years, there are fewer and fewer of the thousands of Japanese Americans removed from their homes during the war who are willing or even able to make a pilgrimage to this remote area. For many of us in the Alaskan group, this was the first time we had ever attended. However, Judy Geniac, the superintendent of this historical site, encouraged us to come because so little was known about those who were incarcerated from Alaska. She wanted our group to add to the storehouse of information located there. And so we came to share the stories of Alaskan internees.

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Presenting for the Empty Chair Project were (left to right) Jeff Tanaka, Mary Tanaka Abo, Maya Abo Domingus, Alice Tanaka Hikido, Sam Kito, Harriet Miyasato Beleal and Margie Shackelford.

On the first full day of the pilgrimage several educational sessions were offered on different elements of the Japanese American incarceration. The Empty Chair Project was one of the presentations. On stage representing the group were Jeff Tanaka filming the event; Mary Tanaka Abo acting as moderator at the podium; Mary’s granddaughter Maya Abo Domingus handling the Power Point; and Alice Tanaka Hikido, Sam Kito, Harriet Miyasato Beleal and Margie Shackelford telling their respective stories. Mary, Alice, Sam, and Harriet reflected on personal memories of their family’s incarceration at Minidoka. Harriet’s daughter, Paulette Moreno, added to Harriet’s story with a photograph album detailing their family’s history and Margie spoke about the evolution of the Empty Chair Project, focusing on the myriad contributions of the Juneau community.

Flanking the presenters were banners featuring the development of the Empty Chair Project and the stories of some of the Juneau families who were incarcerated during WWII. There were eight family banners and they were all displayed at the pilgrimage. They will be available for viewing on our website following this article. These memories were written by members of each family and amplified by personal pictures. The banners will travel to various sites under the auspices of the National Park Service and then be returned to Juneau next February for use in schools, libraries and museums.

Gracing the podium were 1,000 cranes used during Empty Chair events. Additionally, introduced from the  audience were Karleen Grummett and Betty Marriott. Karleen informed the audience that the dedication booklet she created for the Empty Chair Memorial, which contains a history of the Juneau Japanese population during the war years, was available to those interested. Betty told the stories and explained the symbolism of the over 3,000 cranes that were made in Juneau and many distant locations for use during the dedication ceremony and other events surrounding the Empty Chair Project.

Introducing the session was one short film titled In the Same Boat (available on this website) featuring Alice Hikido telling the Tanaka family’s incarceration story. Another titled The Empty Chair Project was used to close out the session and featured Walter Fukuyama’s trip to Juneau for the dedication ceremony. It was developed by his grandson David Albright who accompanied him to Juneau. You can access David’s video at www.dalbright.com/emptychair.

Finally, Harriet Miyasato Beleal was the recipient of a special acknowledgement from the National Park Service. Harriet’s father, George Miyasato Sr., was evacuated from Wrangell and incarcerated at Santa Fe right after Pearl Harbor occurred. His son, George Miyasato Jr., was also evacuated from Wrangell at a later date but interned at Minidoka. Harriet and her mother were left in Wrangell alone. Harriet never saw the subsequent letter of apology from President Bush because her father had passed away before reparations were given. However, George Jr. did receive reparations and the letter of apology. Judy Geniac, the site superintendent, presented Harriet with her own framed copy of the apology as well as an official letter from Judy acknowledging Harriet’s family’s ruptured Japanese/Tlingit lives when she and her mother were left in Wrangell on their own.

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The Alaska Contingent: Mary Abo, Alice Hikido, Sam Kito, Paulette Moreno, Betty Marriott, Harriet Beleal, Margie Shackelford, Karleen Grummett and Joe Abo.

On the second day we took buses to visit the remains of the Minidoka site and went on a guided tour put together by members of the National Park Service. Looking out the windows of the bus, we could see fields of potatoes, sugar beets and wheat stretching out to meet the distant horizon as we made our way to the site. One of the riders on the bus mused out loud, “It didn’t look this green when we were sent here!” Irrigation had come to the desert of south central Idaho in the ensuing years.

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Sign marking the entrance to Minidoka.

It was very hot! Even though we were visiting during the morning hours, the organizers were worried about heat stroke, so water and shade were being offered in abundance. We wondered what it would have been like to live in the uninsulated barracks in the summer time without air conditioning, not to mention the cold Idaho winters. It wouldn’t have been a very hospitable environment.

The first structure to grab our attention was the reconstructed guard tower near the entrance. It was a somber reminder of all we had come to reflect upon.

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Reconstructed guard tower at Minidoka.

Traveling further on down the road our bus first visited an original warehouse where we disembarked and were given an overview by Judy Geniac, the park superintendent, so we could orient ourselves to landmarks at the location. Today the historical site is much smaller than what it once was but contains several buildings which have been restored or rebuilt over the years. Among them are a fire station, warehouse, barrack and cafeteria. A visitor’s center and baseball diamond are in the works.

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The original warehouse.


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The National Park Service orienting us to Minidoka and also telling us to drink LOTS of water!

Alice was delighted to speak with a caring teacher who taught school at Minidoka during the incarceration although she was never in her class. Later, she did run into one of her former classmates!

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Alice Tanaka Hikido chatting with a visitor during the pilgrimage who was a teacher at Minidoka.

Next we visited a barrack in the process of restoration. Each 400 sq. ft. room contained a bare light bulb, a stove and cots for each member of the family.

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A barrack in the process of restoration on the left. On the right you can see a restored cafeteria.


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This picture was taken inside the barrack being restored. Two families would live in this space. One between the red rope and the door and the other just beyond the door. In the area where we were standing to take the picture, the third family would live. No kitchen or bathroom facilities were provided. Those facilities were communal.

Then, we visited the cafeteria next door, still under reconstruction, the scene of all meals and gatherings for one block of barracks.

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Inside the cafeteria which is also in the process of being restored.


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Four friends visiting the cafeteria at Minidoka, happy to be together no matter what the circumstances. They are Marsha Bennett, Alice Hikido, Karleen Grummett and Margie Shackelford.


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Joe, Margie and Mary outside the cafeteria.

Mary Tanaka Abo and Sam Kito were interviewed about their experiences as children at Minidoka while wandering the Minidoka site with Tom Banse from Northwest Public Radio. The link to an article titled “Passing On Legacies On Pilgrimage To World War II Internment Camp in Idaho” and a recording of portions of the interviews with Sam and Mary is at: http://nwpr.org/post/passing-legacies-pilgrimage-world-war-ii-internment-camp-idaho .

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An overview of the cafeteria and the barrack.


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Those in our group who were bused to each site and were actually incarcerated at Minidoka. Alice is fourth from the left. Behind her in the blue t-shirt is the artist Roger Shimomura. I’m sorry I can’t identify any of the others. There were additional groups who did a walking tour.

One other location that captured our imaginations….the baseball field. It reminded us of the book Baseball Saved Us.

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You can barely make out the outlines of the bases just beyond the sagebrush. There is an effort afoot to completely restore it and actually play games here!

The last and most impressive site was the Honor Roll Memorial honoring those from Minidoka who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. What a conflicting decision that must have been…incarcerated by your country yet deciding to fight for it.

Honor Roll Memorial

We thanked Judy for facilitating our visit to the Minidoka site and for being so instrumental in helping us spread the story of the Alaskan internees by inviting us to share their stories at this Minidoka Pilgrimage.

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Karleen Grummett wearing her name tag accompanied by Judy Geniac, Superintendent of the Minidoka National Historic Site.

Upon our return to Twin Falls, we met in private discussion circles to reflect on our experiences. It was here that many people revealed their own personal stories, sometimes with tears or anger and sometimes even with laughter. Our group ran the gamut of emotions. However emotional, there was a shared comfort for many Japanese internees in just being together reflecting on a shared experience as well as conveying their experiences to children and grandchildren. For those of us who were not Japanese, it was simply the honor of sharing such a personally painful story with our friends.

The last day there was a closing ceremony at the memorial and participants hung their name tags, replicas of the tags worn by those incarcerated, after writing private messages on the back. As you can imagine, it was a very moving moment. However, there were many of those moments at the pilgrimage — moments when tears flowed, moments when you couldn’t speak, moments when a flash of anger or humiliation punctuated the conversation, moments when you felt grateful just to be there.

When asked about her impressions after the pilgrimage was over, Mary Abo responded, “It was good to be around the people who experienced the incarceration together. It’s a strange feeling. I’m also grateful that my daughter and two grandchildren could share my past, which is now part of theirs.”

Sam Kito said, “But you can’t rewrite history. You live history the way the cards are dealt to you and then make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Mary Abo’s nephew, Jeff Tanaka, put it most poetically in the piece he wrote below. (The phrase “nidoto nai yoni” means “Let it not happen again.”)

let it not happen

(for that which remains unresolved)

nidoto nai yoni

you incarcerate me.

would you do it again.

nidoto nai yoni

you take my culture.

would you do it again.

nidoto nai yoni

you kill my language.

is it still dead.

nidoto nai yoni

you break me from my god.

how will i return.

nidoto nai yoni

you speak for me.

will you ever learn.

nidoto nai yoni

i speak for myself.

nidoto nai yoni

Jeff’s additional observations, insights and pictures can be viewed at the following website: nikkeimemories.tumblr.com.

Greg Chaney’s Film Slated to Show at the Japanese American National Museum

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Tateuchi Democracy Forum

Documentary filmmaker Greg Chaney has been invited to screen his film The Empty Chair at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, CA, on April 2, 2016. The showing will take place in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum at 2:00 p.m. A question and answer period with Chaney will follow the screening.

Some of the people featured in the film will be attending along with members of the Empty Chair Committee. Our hope is that others will make a commitment to be there also. Let it be you! If you want to attend, please contact us so that Greg can provide your name to the attendance list.

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Greg Chaney at Roosevelt Middle School

In addition, while at the DisOrient Asian American Film Festival, Greg was invited to show his film to students at Roosevelt Middle School in Eugene, Oregon.

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Greg introducing his movie to the students.

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Alice Tanaka Hikido on screen.

We are delighted that students are viewing the film so they can appreciate all the nuances of Juneau’s Empty Chair story and begin to think about the ramifications of denying American citizens due process under the law.

Thanks Greg for passing on the messages of the Empty Chair to our youth.

Akiyama Family Donates Bronze Plaque

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Alan Akiyama, whose family donated the plaque, left, with committee member Roger Grummett.

A year and a day from the date of the Empty Chair Dedication on a similarly misty day, the final piece, a bronze plaque, was added to the memorial site at Capital School Park. Alan Akiyama, whose family donated the plaque, joined committee members Karleen Grummett, who developed the plaque, and her husband, Roger, as Triplette Construction’s Tom Dougherty and Loren Hope attached the plaque to the sitting wall. I think we can safely say, the Empty Chair site is now officially completed, thanks to the Akiyama family.

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Loren Hope, left, at the air tank as Tom Dougherty drills holes for setting the plaque.

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Triplette Construction’s Tom Dougherty, left, and Loren Hope, who were also instrumental in constructing the memorial site, placed the plaque.

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Roger and Alan flank the plaque which is centered atop the sitting wall.

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The placement of the plaque in relation to the chair.

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The bronze plaque.

Many thanks to the Akiyama family and everyone concerned for their part in adding this finishing touch to the memorial site which honors the committee and their advisors.