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A Celebration of the Human Spirit - Japanese-American Relocation Camps in Arizona


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Contributed by Arizona Historical Society Library and Archives, Tempe

The Arizona Historical Society houses two collections pertaining to Arizona's two World War II Japanese Relocation Camps, Gila River and Poston. Wade Head served as director of the Poston camp from 1942-1944, and his collection focuses on the administration and documentation of camp life. Frances & Mary Montgomery were teachers at Butte High School, located at the Gila River camp. The Montgomery collection contains student photographs and correspondence, yearbooks, and educational materials. This exhibition showcases original artwork, documents and photographs that illustrate the dichotomy of these two collections while honoring the spirit and culture of their American subjects.

ABOUT THE EXHIBIT

The Inspiration
The inspiration for this exhibit came from the discovery of five exquisite watercolors by Kakunen Tsuruoka during a routine inventory of collections. Removed from their deteriorating frames, the fine quality of the artwork was readily apparent. None of the works are titled. One is painted on a fragment of curtain, the others are on paper. They had been presented as a gift to Wade Head, Poston camp Administrator upon his resignation in 1944. Once the watercolors were framed to museum standards, the hunt for the artist and his family was launched. This became an odyssey over many months, leading from one coast to the other. It involved querying national databases, acclaimed experts in Japanese-American camp art, and dead ends too numerous to mention. Finally, contact was made in New York with Ted Tsuruoka, the artist's grandson, who graciously provided us with biographical information and photographs.

The Synergy
While the artist search was on, it was obvious that there was sufficient material in the Japanese-American camp collections to support both a virtual and a library exhibit. Further, these collections remained largely hidden and unknown. They clearly deserved a larger audience. "This grew into a broader collaboration between the ASU Libraries' Archives and Special Collections and the Arizona Historical Foundation." Other interests in the Japanese-American experience during WWII converged.

  • 2006 - Growing support and research for historical monument designation of both Arizona camps through the State Historical Preservation Office
  • 2006 - Arizona Humanities grant awarded to Cynthia Kadohata for Weedflower as part of the project "Exploring Japanese American Internment Through Reality and Fiction"
  • April 2006 - Invited to participate in tour of Gila River camp
  • May 2006 - Museum Association of Arizona keynoter, Irene Hirano speaks on "Enduring Communities: Japanese Americans in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah"
  • June 2006 - The Japanese American Citizens League Convention held in Phoenix
The Logo
The simplicity and peace of a little bird in a tree, found as found as an illustration on an issue of the Poston Chronicle newspaper, was chosen as the exhibit logo. For us, it not only symbolized the beauty, grace and endurance of those interned at the camps, but also aesthetics and elegance of a culture - proof positive of the human spirit over adversity. There have been many exhibits about the social injustices of the relocation camps through the years but very few that focus on the art and artifacts of that experience.

The Film
The Wade Head Collection also contained a rare reel of color film documenting the Poston camp from the original aerial surveys to the first arrivals of internees from California and New Mexico. The sound magnetic strip has disappeared with time, but the dramatic images require no overdubbing. Inquiries to the National Archives, National Association of Moving Images, and professional listservs lead us to believe that this may be the only film of its kind in existence. It has now been digitized.

The Photographs
Of the nearly 400 photographs, documents and artwork found in the Montgomery and Head Collections, we chose these for their composition as well as their documentation of camp life. We were struck by the youth, work ethic, and discipline found there. Most of the individuals are unidentified. Most are now deceased. These are the children of the camps, now disappearing. They are thoroughly American in their interests and bound together by their ethnicity. This exhibit attempts to honor them.

ABOUT THE ARIZONA CAMPS

Background
In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 that moved 110,000-120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans into 10 isolated relocation centers in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Among the largest of these were the Poston and Gila River camps in Arizona. While extant, these were two of the largest "cities" in the state. Over 1100 citizens from both camps served in the U.S. Armed Services; of these, 47 died in uniform.

Poston Vital Statistics
  • Location: 12 miles south of Parker, Arizona on the Colorado River Reservation
  • Opened: May 8, 1942 Closed November 28, 1945
  • Size: 71,000 acres
  • Climate: Reportedly the hottest of all camps (average temperatures for July and August 1942 unavailable)
  • Peak Population: 17,814 (largest relocation camp in the country)
  • Origin of prisoners: Southern California, Kern County, Fresno, Monterey Bay Area, Sacramento County, Southern Arizona
  • 93.7% answered positively to the U.S. loyalty questionnaire
  • Divided into three separate camps - I, II, and III (called Roasten, Toasten, and Dustin by internees)
  • Built by Del Webb and 5,000 workers in less than 120 days
  • Only camp administered by the Office of Indian Affairs rather than the War Relocation Authority
  • From 1942-1945, 662 births and 221 deaths recorded
  • Main Industry: Camouflage net factory; warship model building
  • Known for its workers strike
Gila River Vital Statistics
  • Location: 50 miles south of Phoenix, Arizona on the Gila River Indian Reservation
  • Size: 17,000 acres
  • Opened: July 20, 1942 Closed: November 10, 1945
  • Average temperatures for July and August 1942: 109.6 and 104 degrees
  • Peak Population: 13,348
  • Origin of prisoners: Sacramento Delta, Fresno County, Los Angeles area
  • 90.5% answered positively to the U.S. loyalty questionnaire
  • Divided into Canal Camp and Butte Camp
  • Main Industry: Largest agricultural program of all the camps. Nearly 1,000 prisoners farmed 8,000 acres of vegetable crops and managed 2,000 head of cattle, 2,500 hogs, 25,000 chickens, and 110 dairy cows
  • Only camp visited by Eleanor Roosevelt

Sources:
http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/anthropology74/ce4.htm
http://www.csuohio.edu/art_photos/poston/poston.html
http://www.jav
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