An Internment Camp Within an Internment Camp

For Japanese-Americans, Feb. 19 marks the Day of Remembrance. That's the day in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 and put into motion the government's forced removal and imprisonment of more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry — 60 percent of whom were American citizens.

Military officials considered anyone of Japanese descent, whether a U.S. citizen or not, to be a potential spy and a security risk.

With little notice, Japanese were gathered up and ordered to leave their homes, businesses and friends to be incarcerated without trial. They could only take what they could carry and were moved to 10 internment camps spread across some of the nation's most inhospitable terrains.

In "Passing Poston: An American Story," a documentary premiering this month, filmmakers Joe Fox and James Nubile disclose a surprising and little-known secret about the Poston internment camp in the Arizona desert. Poston was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation for a specific reason: Japanese detainees were brought to the desolate location to provide free, forced labor for the American government.

Ruth Okimoto, who spent her childhood years locked up in Poston, was haunted decades later by the experience. Cameras tracked her journey as she traveled back to Poston and research its beginnings.

"There was a different purpose for Poston besides just being an internment camp. I think the first discovery that absolutely startled me was finding out that the Office of Indian Affairs [now the Bureau of Indian Affairs] was in charge of running the Poston camp, along with the War Relocation Authority, who ran the nine other internment camps."

The Japanese were ordered to build the infrastructure — schools, dams, canals and farms — so the U.S. government could consolidate scattered American Indian tribes from smaller reservations in one place after the war.

Okimoto learned that the U.S. government had been trying unsuccessfully for decades to bring water from the Colorado River to the reservation. Historian Michael Sosi, of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, said it was a government official named John Collier who figured out an ingenious way to accomplish the task.

"John Collier, who was a commissioner of Indian Affairs under Franklin Roosevelt, was very interested in developing this area," Sosi said, "but the problem for the reservation was there were not enough people to justify federal expenditures for the irrigation project."

So Collier, who needed the improvements to coerce other tribes to move to this desolate desert reservation, realized the Japanese would provide the key.

"Japanese internment was the justification needed for the expenditure of federal funds," said Sosi. Once the Japanese were in place, their labor in the torrid heat of the desert made the reservation livable enough to attract the Indians — and fulfill Collier's plans.

In this time of racial discrimination and hatred for the Japanese, the plan was a way to displace one group of unwelcome people and use their hard work to build the infrastructure so another displaced group of people — American Indians — could be isolated there after the war. The irony of this was not lost on Okimoto.

"What better opportunity than to have free, confined laborers in Poston?" asked Okimoto. "And that's what Commissioner Collier figured would be the best way to fulfill a project that he had been working on for years."

"The government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs used us for their ends, for their plans and we were pawns in the hands of the two governmental agencies," Okimoto said.

At its peak, Poston housed 17,000 people, mostly uprooted from the West Coast. The Japanese detainees held at the three Poston camps were used as laborers to build adobe schools, do experimental farming and to construct an irrigation system.

In the film, internees describe the backbreaking work they performed to accomplish the task. When the Japanese were released in 1945, the government carried out its plan to settle the camps with American Indian tribes from the Southwest.

Colonists, as the government referred to them, from the Hopi and Navajo tribes, as well as other tribes living along the Colorado River, moved into the barracks built for the Japanese detainees.

The colonists were recruited by the Office of Indian Affairs and lured by promises of fertile farmland and plentiful water. The new arrivals found a working canal system to irrigate farmland, school buildings and many other necessities for their relocation. For some from the less developed areas of other reservations, it was a step up to have running water and the opportunity to farm. But it remained the product of forced labor by American citizens during World War II.

Dennis Patch, a council member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, grew up in a house that used to be part of the Japanese barracks. Because American Indian reservations were designed as places where native people had to ask permission before they could leave, Patch called Poston "an internment camp within an internment camp."

"We can identify with mass relocation against our will," he said. "To see another ethnic group brought and lodged there against their will was to me really striking and bewildering."

Patch heard about the Japanese detainees from his parents, grandparents and tribal elders. "They didn't like to see the people suffer that way … because these were men, women and children. They didn't understand it, but they knew it wasn't right. … They had no idea what to do about it; they had no power to do anything about it."

"They built the schools here, they built the roads here, they developed the acreage into fields here, they brought the power down the center of the reservation, Patch said. "So up until that time, we as native people were without running water, restroom facilities, without electricity. From their suffering we gained a lot."

Sosi, the historian, agreed. "Out of this tragedy, we benefited to a great extent. … Their suffering alleviated poverty and other things here on this reservation."

But was the suffering worth it for America? By the end of the war, only 10 people had been convicted of spying for Japan.

And all of them were white.