The Past In Pieces

Having my morning cup of coffee, I open The Lewiston Tribune to an article on a public archeology day at the excavation of a former Japanese internment camp. Over the past ten years of hiking, soaking in hot springs, and rafting on or near the beautiful Clearwater River, I had no idea that Kooskia hosted a facility filled with Japanese men during World War II. The article says University of Idaho assistant professor Stacey Camp is heading the dig. Interested in finding out more about Stacey and the project, I dial her number.

It turns out that Kooskia housed the only all-male, Japanese internment camp known to have existed in America during the war.  Larger and better-known camps, such as Amache in Colorado, housed families. Men from Amache voluntarily left the camp to help construct Highway 12 in northern Idaho, the first project sponsored by the federal government that used internees as a work force. The Kooskia men, however—among them a San Francisco editor named Kizaemon Ikken Momii and a driver for a Seattle dry cleaning business named Shohei Arase—were forcibly removed from their families by the F.B.I., and were treated like prisoners of war.

Stacey received two grants from her university and one through the National Park Service to excavate the Kooskia site. She and a group of mostly undergraduates began the dig last summer. The plan is to continue the work for four to six weeks every other summer for the next five to ten years, focusing each year on a different theme or area of the site. In the off-years, the team will process and analyze data, write reports, and try to get more grants.

In preparation for the dig, Stacey and students Josh Allen and Paige Davis traveled to Amache, which had held seven thousand people. They met a women who had been interned there as a child. Later, she and her husband helped to excavate the barrack where she had lived with her family. The trauma of that time prevented the family from talking about it, but the excavation work allowed the former internee to connect with her past and with a part of American history in another way.

I met with Josh at a coffee shop in Moscow. A skinny young man with an easy grin, he said having dinner with the former internee had helped to get him interested in archaeology. The people who lived at the sites of such digs often are long gone, but in this case, he got a first-hand view of how the present is connected to the past. Until then, his only experience of archeology had been course work. “I had never picked up a trowel and dug a one-by-one unit before,” he said, laughing a little at himself.

The visit to Amache gave Stacey’s students a notion of the sorts of things they might expect to find on their dig, such as ceramic dishes, gaming pieces, Japanese porcelain, and gardening tools and artifacts. They also gained insight into how to set up an interpretive program, including how to involve the local community.

At Kooskia last summer, work days were long. Every day, the team drove from Stites, where they were staying, to the site, forty minutes away. The sun was hot and the bugs fierce. Often, they were so busy digging with their trowels or shaking the screens with both hands that they couldn’t even bat away the horseflies. At first, one of Josh’s main tasks was to operate ground-penetrating radar, which differentiates soil densities. In this way, the radar can produce evidence of, say, where someone had walked, or of an old garden. But some of these findings didn’t make sense. Why was there evidence of asphalt in layers farther down than that of nails? That particular question was answered later, when the team learned that construction had been done in the area in the 1970s, when the site was used as a dumping ground for materials. Sometimes, the ground-penetrating radar told the team where to dig. For example, although the ground near the guardhouses showed artifacts, it also showed leveling, so the crew chose instead to dig at the barracks. They were careful not to disturb plants, some of which might have historical significance. One question the team is still gathering data to answer is whether the men in Kooskia planted different things than the women who gardened at other internment camps.

The first week or two of the dig they did shovel testings. Small holes, sometimes more than seventy centimeters deep, were dug along a grid to determine if any areas [WERE?] dense with artifacts. The next steps were excavation and mapping.

One afternoon, Josh stood beside me in the hot, dry woods, describing some of the challenges of archeology. “You gotta get out there and stand in the sun and figure out why your grid is off by two centimeters,” he said. I knew what he meant, thinking about the summer more than a decade ago that I spent digging and sifting in the desert of New Mexico.

Last spring, Josh presented his findings, which were focused on tobacco, to the Society of American Archaeology in Sacramento.  “I decided tobacco would be a good way to look at cultural choices in the camp,” he explained. “It was broad enough to show a representation of the internees, but also small enough to handle, in the short amount of time I had.”  His objective was to discover whether particular types of loose-leaf tobacco were chosen by internees based on cultural identity, but, alas, he was forced to conclude they mostly used American tobacco, probably because of its wide availability. He said the tobacco study revealed much about smoking habits at Kooskia, even though it didn’t define cultural choices.

One prize find for Josh was a token-style coupon for Red Goose shoes, which an internee probably brought with him. He could only guess at the item’s importance to the study. “A year is nothing to work on a project,” he noted.

A related assignment he had was ethnographic: to contact the son of a former Kooskia camp internee who now lives in California. The internee had been part of the Manzanar riot in California, the most infamous uprising in the history of the internment camps, during which some internees were killed. The man, who was never convicted of wrongdoing, was subsequently was sent to several different camps, including Kooskia. Many of the men at Kooskia were transferred there to escape desperate conditions at another camp, such as the dust and dryness of a camp in Santa Fe, or to be closer to family at the Minidoka camp in southern Idaho, or to make money to send their families.

Jaime Capawana, looking nice in a striped shirt and pink sweater, has a newly-minted diploma in Anthropology, but she doesn’t like crawly things. Of course, other students on the dig couldn’t help but toss worms at her. For her study focus, she chose buttons. “Clothing reflects our identity in lots of ways,” she told me, her head tilted in thought.  The site, she said, was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp before it was a prison camp, and one early goal was to determine which stratas of soil were associated with the two groups. One of her techniques was to examine the maker’s marks on the backs of buttons in an attempt to date them.

“The prison services buttons could have belonged to the guards at the internment camp,” she said, and I got the impression from her wording that she was trying to simplify the information for a non-scientist. Jaime also gave a presentation to the Society of American Archeology, during which she suggested the army buttons could have come from clothes worn by internees, who were issued army surplus clothes as work clothes. “The lack of nicer buttons suggests they were taking home their nicer clothes and leaving their working clothes behind.”  This meant they didn’t want to be identified as internees, she concluded.

Jaime said people have romanticized visions of archeology, which is nothing like an “Indiana Jones” experience. “You have to constantly rethink things,” she said. “What is going on with this site?  What is going on with this land?”  She thinks the men interned there probably did view the land as paradise, despite the difficult environmental conditions that still pertain today, such as summer heat and bugs. In its own way, her challenge of working around a boulder during shovel testings must have been similar to the internees’ struggles in blasting away mountainsides to build Highway 12, she thought.

On a gray afternoon in late spring, I sat in Stacey Camp’s office in Phinney Hall at he university as she explained what she hoped to get out of the dig. Every few minutes, she referred to her large computer screen to show me a picture from a blog or share a quote, as she intermittently rubbed her pregnant belly. She said a main goal was to see how males without their families responded to the stress of being in an internment camp. Kooskia  was small compared to other internment camps, with only 265 internees, which has allowed Stacey and her students to link some of their finds to individual people. That can “put a face to what it was to be a first generation immigrant.” For instance, her team found a streetcar token they believe came from Tacoma, Washington. Two of the men interned at the camp might have lived along the railway line in Tacoma, so they conclude one of them may have brought it with him. I imagined how they might have thought it was a clod of dirt at first, nothing like the old penny it looks like once it is cleaned and catalogued. Other finds have included false teeth, evidence that a dentist was in practice there, and gaming pieces made from local stones, leading Stacey to believe the men engaged in gambling and gaming while away from their families, a practice that would have been shunned by the Japanese-American community, for fear it would have drained family finances.

Stacey brought me into her lab and removed items from plastic bags, showing me evidence of stone artwork in the form of pencil holders and vases, artifacts that had not been found at any other internment camp but that fit in with evidence from other camps of internees doing what they could to make their surroundings more pleasant. “They remarked about how beautiful the landscape was compared to other camps, but they were out nowhere. They were sequestered all alone, so it’s not surprising you’re going to find artwork and hand-crafted gaming pieces,” she said. The pieces of stonework she produced were hardly recognizable as the same, elaborate items she had shown in pictures at her office. Stacey handled each artifact carefully, laughingly explaining that the blue paint on her hands was from remodeling the house before her second baby was due to arrive later in the summer.

Other students aside from Josh and Jamie also have focused on artifacts, including medical bottles, wrappers of candy marketed toward men, locks and keys, beer bottles, and Japanese items that might have been smuggled in. Stacey said the team originally thought the candy wrappers were trash, perhaps left by campers, until a student carefully unwrapped one of them to display a label they recognized. Internees were only able to bring one suitcase with all of their belongings, so Stacey knows whatever each man decided to bring from home must have held a lot of meaning.

She said a week in the field usually equals a year in the lab. Archeologists often are not comfortable publishing their data until they have quantified them, such as how many fragments of pottery they have found. Her goal was to get the data into good shape before going out to the field this summer. “It’s a long process,” she admitted as we walked back to her office.

One discovery was that the internees petitioned for a doctor, because they knew their entitlements under the Geneva Conventions, which applied to this camp but not others, wish [WHICH] contained people from Mexico, Panama and Peru of Japanese descent. Priscilla Wegars wrote in Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the WWII Kooskia, that federal government agents kidnapped men held at Kooskia because they hoped to exchange them for American prisoners of war in Japan. Accordingly, these internees had more leeway in terms of requests than those in other camps, and they made the best of it. For example, they asked for food that was more to their liking than the typical American fare they were served at first.

The Geneva Conventions also said these men could not do work for which they were physically unfit. Although most internees wanted to work on construction of Highway 12 instead of working in the camp, because it paid more, such work often involved jackhammering, operating dump trucks—which occasionally went into the river—and clearing land with pick axes. Before a doctor came on site, no medical examinations were conducted to ensure that internees were physically fit for such work. Some internees were old, and one was a diabetic. Also, the internees requested a doctor, but first they possibly tried to treat themselves with eyedrops and menthol cream. One internee, Dr. Koba, was a physician who had been to medical school several times but never completed it. Originally interned at Fort Missoula, he talked his way into becoming Kooskia’s camp doctor. Stacey and her students found a medicinal bottle with Japanese lettering on it from a pharmaceutical company, which they suppose was brought by an internee, possibly Dr. Koba. “A little piece of broken bottle glass is not a big deal to someone who is not an archaeologist, but when we go and clean it in the lab and discover there’s Japanese characters, it’s an incredible find,” Stacey said, leaning back in her chair.

The camp had no barbed wire around its perimeter, as it was so remote, there was little threat of internees running away. The area is overgrown nowadays, and no sign has been erected to mark what the site once was. Stacey would like to see the installation of interpretive signs, to help people remember this part of U.S. history. Her efforts to involve the local community has included the staging public archeology days at a resort and at the university, which she said drew many family members of those who had worked at the camp. Her long-term goal is to see the site protected on the National Register of Historic Places.

Appeared in the September 2011 issue of Idaho Magazine

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