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Saving the legacy of internment

Nonprofit group wants to bring the history of World War II internment camps such as Minidoka into Idaho public schools.

July 06, 2008|Jessie L. Bonner | Associated Press

EDEN, IDAHO — The farmland faces a skinny stretch of Hunt Road, fields that barely resemble the sagebrush-ridden piece of desert where Charles Coiner learned to drive as a teenager in southern Idaho.

Coiner grew up about 15 miles from the site where Japanese Americans were detained behind five miles of barbed wire during World War II. They lived in tar paper-covered barracks at the Minidoka Relocation Center compound.

"Even driving by here as a kid, nobody talked about it," he said.

Coiner revisited the site in May with a group of Centennial High School students on a field trip, the culmination of several weeks the students spent studying World War II internment camps such as Minidoka.

They found a broken-down root cellar and a few barracks, the remnants of one of the darker chapters in Idaho history. The state hosted one of the largest of the 10 camps the U.S. government built to detain Japanese Americans during the war.

Coiner, a state senator, is among those supporting early efforts by the nonprofit Friends of Minidoka to bring a comprehensive history of the World War II internment camp into Idaho public schools.

Students are currently being taught little, if anything, about the history of the site and what took place there, said Friends of Minidoka board member Steve Thorson.

"There isn't a broad understanding of what happened," Thorson said.

The camps were created after President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, declaring the West Coast a forbidden zone to those with at least one-sixteenth Japanese ancestry.

Friends of Minidoka was founded six years ago to preserve the history of the camp and promote education about the site, which held an estimated 10,000 Japanese Americans at one point and was designated a national monument in 2001.

But the initiative to build a statewide curriculum based on the internment camp, a proposal the Idaho Department of Education has agreed to consider and former detainees support, could be complicated because the development of the monument is still in the early stages.

Plans for a visitor center at Minidoka are targeted for 2010, said National Park Service education specialist Annette Rousseau.

"That's one of the difficulties of going out there," Rousseau said. "There's not a lot to see."

The agency is working with various historical societies to preserve the memories of the surviving Minidoka detainees, also a difficult task.

In the decades after their release, many Japanese Americans remained silent about their experience in the camps, which operated in the western United States and Arkansas between 1942 and 1946.

"There was almost nothing about this in the history books," said Robert Sims, a Boise State University emeritus professor who has researched the camps extensively.

Nick Wassner, a 14-year-old from Boise, was among the Centennial students who visited the Minidoka site in May along with his mother, Andrea Wassner, 45, who grew up in California and learned from an early age about Manzanar, the internment camp in the Owens Valley. Her son stood on the concrete base of a former a warehouse at the Minidoka camp and said he didn't know anything about the site before his class began its project.

" 'Romeo and Juliet,' yeah, that stuff you have to learn," he said. "But this stuff hits home a lot better."

The program that Centennial teacher Gena Marker designed prompted the Friends of Minidoka to pitch a statewide version.

Thorson said his proposal could be modeled after a similar curriculum adopted in Washington state.

Densho, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization founded to preserve the history of the internment camps, was awarded a state grant last year to develop the curriculum in Washington.

The teaching materials include videos and oral history lessons and are designed for elementary, middle and high school students.

The materials meet statewide curriculum standards and are now available to Washington teachers for use in the classroom, said Patricia Kiyono, a spokeswoman for Densho.

"We're working hard to market these pieces," Kiyono said. "There's an increasing demand."

The group is creating Minidoka educational materials for the National Park Service, Kiyono said.

It's vital that students know what happened to Japanese Americans during the war, said Oregon resident Joe Saito, 90, who fought in the mostly Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team during the war.

Saito came to Boise in May to meet the Centennial students. Because he was in the military, he was never detained -- unlike his family and the woman he would later marry.

Teaching younger generations about what happened is the only way to ensure it never happens again, Saito said.

"It's part of our history," he said, "what one group of people in our country had to go through." His wife, Nellie, a petite woman born in Bellevue, Wash., was 19 when she arrived at Minidoka with her mother and six siblings.

Nellie Saito, now 86, said her family had two weeks to pack their belongings before they were relocated to the southern Idaho desert, where they lived in barracks and worked on irrigation and farm projects.

"It was bad," she said. "We didn't know what to expect."

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