Commentary

As Minidoka lands on most endangered historic places list, we must continue to tell its story

The memory of Idaho’s incarceration camp for Japanese-Americans must be protected as a portion of a new wind energy project would fall on the original footprint of the historical site, writes guest columnist Tara Rowe.

May 17, 2022 4:00 am
Minidoka National Historic Site

The National Trust released a list of the 11 most endangered historic places, and on that list was the Minidoka National Historic Site. (Courtesy of Tara Rowe)

The late Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta arrived at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, barracks where he and his family were incarcerated during World War II and had his baseball bat confiscated. Baseball for Mineta, like many young Japanese-Americans unconstitutionally incarcerated during the war, was a lifeline. On the dusty, makeshift ball fields of the camps, Mineta could briefly forget his country’s betrayal of his rights.

The news of Mineta’s recent death was once again the dark reminder of our history as a nation, a nation that incarcerated approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans, many of whom were born in the United States. 

Rising out of those bleak days on a desolate baseball field outside Cody, Wyoming, Mineta went on to a lifetime of public service. Returning to his home of San Jose, California, he served on its city council and as the city’s mayor before being elected to the House of Representatives. It was then that, with his childhood friend Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, he sponsored the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a bill that offered reparations to those who were unlawfully incarcerated during WWII due their Japanese ancestry. Mineta went on to serve under President Bill Clinton as secretary of Commerce and under George W. Bush as Transportation secretary, revamping the department in the days after Sept. 11, 2001. 

Idaho’s own Rep. Richard Stallings contends that his vote on the Civil Liberties act of 1988 was one of, if not the, most important votes he took during his tenure. He, like Sen. Alan Simpson, grew up in the shadow of the camps. As a child in Ogden, Utah, his proximity to Topaz, a camp in the northern Utah desert, would leave a mark on the man who would become both a historian and a congressman. 

Simpson and Mineta met as young men in the Boy Scouts. Stallings was educated with children who had once been incarcerated at Topaz. The experiences of Stallings and Simpson are not unusual. In southern Idaho counties near where the Minidoka camp stood, older residents recount their memories of the camp near Hunt, Idaho. Many of them went to school with kids whose families were incarcerated and stayed in the area after being released. 

That these stories continue to be told 76 years after the last camp closed is a testament to the importance of places like Minidoka. 

However, we take for granted that our memories of historically important places and events will survive over generations. One way that we can prevent that from happening is by protecting what remains of the incarceration camps.

For information on the National Trust’s list of 11 endangered places, visit savingplaces.org. Idaho Public Television will also air “Betrayed: Surviving an American Concentration Camp” about Minidoka at 8 p.m. Pacific and 9 p.m. mountain time today.

Last week, the National Trust released a list of the 11 most endangered historic places and on that list was the Minidoka National Historic Site. The press release explained the threat to the former incarceration camp as follows:

“Minidoka’s sweeping vistas and distant mountains continue to convey the isolation and remoteness that Japanese Americans experienced there. However, a wind farm has been proposed next to Minidoka National Historic Site, potentially including construction of wind turbines within the historic footprint of the Minidoka camp. If constructed as currently planned, the project could irrevocably change Minidoka’s landscape, potentially creating a visual wall of hundreds of wind towers, each taller than the Seattle Space Needle, with blades exceeding the wingspan of a Boeing 747.”

It is particularly disappointing that the Bureau of Land Management, which is considering the proposal for the Lava Ridge Wind Farm, either does not appreciate that the story of Minidoka is truly one of barracks unprotected from the dust and grit that accompanied southern Idaho wind and brilliant vistas in every direction, or they have chosen to overlook these things entirely. While the proposal is for the 73,000 acres of BLM land adjacent to the Minidoka Historic site, a portion of the project would be on the original footprint of the camp.

It is terribly disappointing that a corporation like Magic Valley Energy is allowed to co-opt that space at all. Corporations should have a responsibility to historically important lands just as the federal government does.

As the land slopes away from the original Minidoka warehouse — now visitor’s center — toward agricultural lands as far as the eye can see is a quaint baseball field. Like the fields of other incarceration camps, it once saw a generation of young men compete against one another to pass the time as prisoners of their own country. At Gila River was a young man who played at UC Davis prior to the war; at Poston a man who went on to spend six decades working as a clubhouse assistant for the Chicago Cubs; and, at Heart Mountain a future congressman and cabinet secretary.

Those stories deserve telling, and nowhere is a better place to do so than on the land where those stories played out.

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Tara Rowe
Tara Rowe

Tara Rowe is an independent historian and scholar who frequently writes commentary for the Idaho State Journal. Her historical research includes contributing to the anthology "Idaho’s Place: A New History of the Gem State," the forthcoming anthology "Ezra Pound: A Century Later" and a forthcoming work on women in Idaho coinciding with the centennial of women’s suffrage. She is writing a biography of former Idaho congressman Richard Stallings. She was born and raised in southern Idaho, is an Idaho State University alumna and resides Twin Falls.

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