Shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, the United States Government ordered all people of Japanese descent away from the west coast. This order included U.S. citizens, as well as legal immigrants. They were given one week to pack up their things and report to evacuation centers. From there they were sent to relocation and internment camps well away from the coast – some as far away as Arkansas and North Dakota.
They could not drive to the camps but were taken by military transport. All they could take was they could carry. Once at the camps, they found bleak barracks – six families to a building with only a thin divider to separate the families. Each family’s new home was a single room 20 x 20 feet. It contained a cot. That was it. There was no privacy and no place to put personal possessions. The camps were surrounded by wire, patrolled by the Army and the gates locked. People were expected to work to maintain the camp, for which they were paid a pittance. Everything they had at home was lost.
To fight the despair and for practical reasons, the internees began to create things from anything they on which they could get their hands. Scrap lumber and wire from building the camps, wood from the nearby land, even the rocks and the shells found on the ground. The Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. is presenting a special exhibit through January 30, 2011 of the items created in these camps.
At first they made practical things, tables, chairs, chest of drawers. But, these were not just items made from slapping wood together. They were carved and adorned to show individually. At a time when they were being treated like cattle and considered enemies of their own country, it was important to assert some humanity and individuality.
The men mostly did the wood working. Once the tables and chairs were made, they moved to other items. Walking sticks were a necessity to negotiate the tough terrain of the camps. These sticks were intricately carved pieces, with people vying to have the most interesting stick. The men worked with metal. Melting down the scrap pieces they could find to create tools to create other things.
Women set about beautifying the place as much as possible. They made flowers out of pipe cleaners (the Sears Roebuck catalogue came in very handy during these years), that looked better than the real thing. They made beautiful pins of flowers, butterflies or birds out of sea shells (Tule Lake) or food products such as beans and seeds. They also knitted or crocheted intricately designed handbags. One lady crocheted flower corsages. Anything to brighten up the bleak, desolate camps that, as one internee put it, “no human being should have to live.”
Games and toys were made also. Sliding puzzles, trains. Baseball jerseys. Baseball was very popular in the camps with several teams competing for the “city” championship. One team that won the championship created a banner signed by all the players.
Prior to the War, many of the artists were shopkeepers, gardeners, just ordinary people. In the camps, they developed their talents. Some just to pass the time, some to create a life where there was none. After the War, when they returned home, many never continued to create. They did not talk of their experience. They did what they had to get through by creating truly wonderful creations. When they could return to their normal lives, they put that behind them as too painful a memory.
The Internment Camps were a dark blotch on our nation’s history. It was not until the 1988 that the U.S. Government apologized to the internees and their families. Their compensation for being rounded up and shipped off from everything and everyone they knew was a mere $20,000.00. This exhibit shows the indomitable spirit of those who went into the camps and refused to be crushed by them. It is well worth visiting.