Not Our Finest Hour

It’s still cold in Quartzsite. But I was sick of hiding inside to stay warm, so I bundled up, set the V-Strom windshield to its maximum height, thoroughly tested my Kemimoto heated gloves, and went for a bike ride. After a detour up by Parker Dam, through the twisties on the California side of the Colorado River, and not getting busted by CHP because I wasn’t riding too fast, I took a detour to the Poston Memorial Monument.

It wasn’t until George Takei used his Star Trek fame and influence to educate people about it that I learned about the World War II Japanese internment camps. I don’t mean where the Japanese put Allied POWs. I mean where America put more than 127,000 citizens who lived along the west coast, simply because they looked like and shared ancestry with the country that bombed Pearl Harbor. While not on the scale of what Germany was doing to people they didn’t like, it was still wrong to imprison Americans who had committed no crime and take away their property and the successful lives they’d built for themselves. They certainly didn’t teach us about this shameful part of American history in school.

Three of these camps were near Parker (and Quartzsite) on the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ reservation. Today the Poston Memorial Monument exists near where 17,867 Americans of at least 1/16 “Japanese blood” were forced to live from 1942 to 1945. This made it the third largest city in Arizona at the time after Phoenix and Tuscon.

This kiosk is the first thing you see as you leave the small dirt parking lot. It has plaques explaining the history of the place, what happened here, and the poor conditions these people lived in, especially the first year before weathertight dwellings were built. I’ve experienced a small sample of this extreme weather myself, and can’t imagine huddling for shade from the blazing summer sun, warmth from the cold like I’m experiencing now, or shelter from the monsoons in rudimentary structures made of little more than wallboard.

The monument itself is an ingenious design. The 30-foot pillar symbolizes the unity of spirit. Its spout is both decorative and functional, preventing water from pouring down and staining the pillar itself. The six-sided base resembles a Japanese lantern. Twelve small pillars surrounding the monument work as a sundial.

More plaques commemorate what happened here, and remind future generations to never let this happen again.

But it was these small stones that hit me the hardest. Each commemorates someone who was imprisoned here. Someone put time and effort into making these, likely a direct descendent, or at least someone who cared for each person very much. I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating. It’s one thing to read about history in books or on the internet. It’s quite another to go somewhere yourself and personally connect with it. The old camps are gone, but this memorial, and especially these hand-painted stones, made it real to me.

Back to the kiosk, it’s worth mentioning the Colorado River Indian Tribes themselves. They strongly objected to even more forced relocation on what was supposed to be their sovereign land, but like the US government had done many times before, it ignored their wishes. Ironically, the tribes actually benefit from the farming that started at the camps. With little else to do, some Japanese-Americans started a garden, and their techniques worked extremely well. Farming became a major activity at the camps. The tribes continued to farm after the camps were shut down and the people released, an activity that continues all up and down Tribal Route 1 in this area today.

I know that what happened here isn’t my fault. It was FDR who signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing this forced relocation, not me. The camps came and went decades before I was born. But I think it’s important to remember the injustice that happened here, and do whatever small part I can to make sure this part of history never repeats itself.

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