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A Living History

Japanese-American pilgrims planning rare Boise visit to civil liberties symposium

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Idaho is in love with its white history. Schoolchildren are asked to embrace tales of explorers, homesteaders and even land barons. Yet laborers, immigrants and the impoverished are often swept aside, our instances of hatred and ignorance rarely considered.

"The saying is absolutely true: Those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it," said Dr. Russ Tremayne, history professor at the College of Southern Idaho. "I see so many chances that we could possibly repeat something that was beyond our imagination."

Something, for instance, like locking up citizens based on their national origin.

"It absolutely boggles my mind, the more I think about it," said Tremayne. "Putting tens-of-thousands of Americans in prison camps, without trial. A total miscarriage of our Constitution."

Carol Ash, chief of interpretation from the Minidoka National Historic Site, said the nation continues to come perilously close to repeating its ugly past.

"Right after 9/11, we came so close to setting up camps for people of Arab descent," said Ash. "The fight to maintain our liberties has never been more relevant to stress to our young people that they need to relate it to their own experiences. It's a constant struggle to deal with so many things: being a member of an ethnic group, being poor, being gay, even being overweight."

Tremayne called Ash a "master educator." Lately she's been busy crafting a unique teach-the-teacher workshop, as part of the seventh annual Civil Liberties Symposium, slated for Thursday, June 21, and Friday, June 22, at Boise State. Even though this will be the conference's first visit to Boise State, it was the university's professor of history, emeritus, Dr. Bob Sims, who dreamed of the symposium.

"Bob is our godfather," said Tremayne. "He spent 40 years studying these issues, and he helped design this conference, which for the past six years has been at CSI in the Magic Valley."

In fact, it was Sims who challenged a young student several years ago about her knowledge of Idaho's internment of Japanese-Americans.

"One day, Bob Sims asked me, 'Do you know about Minidoka?' I didn't want to sound stupid, so I said, 'Yeah,'" remembered Hanako Wakatsuki. "I googled it when I got home and I was appalled, because I hadn't learned anything about it."

Today Wakatsuki is chairwoman of the nonprofit Friends of Minidoka, advocates to preserve the legacy of Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated at the Jerome County camp during World War II.

"Between 10,000-13,000 Japanese Americans were interned at the camp during the Second World War," said Wendy Janssen, superintendent of the Minidoka National Historic Site. "At the time, it was the seventh-largest city in Idaho."

Janssen said the camp transcends importance to Japanese-Americans.

"This is our collective American history, not just a Japanese-American story," she said. "And with each of our symposiums, we broaden our lens. We must never let it happen again, and we learn that by focusing on the children in these experiences."

In fact, "Through the Eyes of Children" is the theme of the symposium, examining the complexities of children living in Native American boarding schools, Hispanic labor camps and Japanese internment camps, all of which were part of Idaho's checkered past.

"So many people in so many different areas have had to struggle for the right to vote, for the right to sit anywhere in a theater, to not being sent to a relocation center at the first sign of trouble," said Ash. "It's important that we help young people understand that they have to be a part of that ongoing struggle to maintain our liberties."

But before the message makes its way to Idaho school children, the symposium's founders will get in front of as many Treasure Valley teachers as possible.

"We're willing to scholarship any teacher who is interested in coming to the June 21 workshop," said Tremayne. "That's truly why we decided to bring this to Boise."

Wakatsuki conceded that the Treasure Valley has limited knowledge of or exposure to the Minidoka site but hopes that this year's symposium begins to change that.

"I grew up in West Boise and went to school in the Meridian district. I never heard about Minidoka until I went to college," said Wakatsuki. "I assumed it was some obscure thing in history. But this is the history of Idaho. We continue to glorify the Pacific Northwest and the explorations, but we don't focus on the non-white cultures that helped to create this state."

Tremayne said the emotional high point of the symposium will be a rare Treasure Valley visit from up to 200 so-called "pilgrims," Japanese-Americans, many in their 80s or 90s, who lived in the Minidoka internment camp.

"Imagine meeting a 100-year-old woman who lived and gave birth to a child at Minidoka," said Tremayne. "In years past, we have had tears and emotions like you cannot believe. This year will be no different. The pilgrimage is so vital."

Additionally, the symposium will include lectures from Dr. David Adler, constitutional scholar and new director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy; Dr. Errol Jones, who has spent the past six years examining the migratory lives of Hispanics in labor camps; and Ernest Green, a member of the famous "Little Rock Nine," a group of black students who, in 1957, desegregated an Arkansas high school.

"We have to begin looking at how history affected children," said Ash. "That's the group that will protect these rights in the future."

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