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Garden Under Guard Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003
by Eric A. Powell
Black smoke rolls
Across the blue sky.
Winter chills our bones.
This is Minidoka.
(Inscription on a stone in Portland's
Japanese-American Historical Plaza)

Archaeology at the site of the Minidoka Relocation Center in southern Idaho is stirring memories of the biggest forced removal of a population in United States history.


The Minidoka Relocation Camp's Japanese rock garden (National Park Service) [LARGER IMAGE]

In 1942, Roosevelt signed executive Order 9066, authorizing Lt. General John L. DeWitt, who was charged with the defence of the western United States, to "evacuate" citizens and resident aliens of Japanese descent from the West Coast. DeWitt called the removal a "military neccessity" on the grounds that "the Japanese race is an enemy race." Ten internment centers eventually housed nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans during the course of the war.

From 1942 to 1945, nearly 13,000 Japanese Americans (over two-thirds of whom were American citizens) were "relocated" to Minidoka, a camp in the remote high desert of Idaho's Snake River Plain. The site, which now has only a handful of standing buildings, became a national monument in 2001. Minidoka still evokes strong emotions among former internees who visit it and planning for the national monument is now proceeding with care.

[image]The remains of the gate house and the reception building (chimney visible at left) at the camp's entrance. (National Park Service) [LARGER IMAGE]

In preparation for creating a management plan for the site, an archaeological survey was conducted and excavations were carried out around the camp's large basalt stone entrance, which was built by internees. Of particular interest to National Park archaeologist Jeffery Burton and his team were the remains of a Japanese-style rock garden, built nearby the camp entrance in 1944 by Fujitaro Kubota, a well-known Seattle landscape architect. Camp internees recall that the garden featured large mounds with basalt boulders arranged around them. Stone-lined trails snaked around specially planted trees and flowers. The archaeologists cleared away brush and exposed the garden's trails, mapping the garden in detail for the first time.

The Minidoka Relocation Camp's Honor Roll (National Archives) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Directly in front of the garden was the camp's "honor roll" sign. A common feature at relocation centers, the honor roll board was inscribed with the names of the nearly 1,000 internees who left the camp to fight for the United States in Europe and the Pacific. Topped with an American eagle, the wooden sign was a potent symbol of the loyalty of the Minidoka internees to the United States. Burton and his colleagues were able to determine where the honor roll stood, and plans are under consideration for reconstructing the wooden sign. They also found a debris-filled pit near the entrance where the flagpole stood.

"We didn't find many artifacts," says Burton, whose team found a 1940 penny, bottle caps with cork linings, and pieces of windowglass and coal during the excavations. "The garden was at the entrance to the camp, where the Caucasians lived, so the Japanese probably didn't hang out there too much." Burton hopes at some point to excavate the camp's landfill, which would presumably yield more information on day-to-day life in the camp.

[image] [image]
National Park Service paleontologists Phil Gensler (left) and archaeologist Leah Bonstead map the Minidoka entrance garden. Volunteers Dick Lord (left) and Ron Beckwith excavate around the basalt rock gate house. (National Park Service) [LARGER IMAGE] [LARGER IMAGE]

Anna Tamura, a former archaeologist and now a landscape architect with the National Park Service whose grandparents were interned at the camp, has been heavily involved in planning future development of the monument. She feels the honor roll and ornamental garden were symbolic statements about internment. "I think it was a way of demonstrating that they were patriotic Japanese Americans," says Tamura "even though they were being unjustly imprisoned by the American government."

* For more on the web go to the National Park Service's Minidoka site.
* The Friends of Minidoka also maintains a site with good background information on the camp.
* A comprehensive overview of all the major relocation centers can be found at:

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America