Japanese at Leupp camp befriended Diné

By Karen Lynch
Special to the Times

Text size: A A A
LEUPP, July 24, 2008

"Someone made an offhand joke to me years ago," said Sara Begay, a teacher at Chilchinbeto Community School Inc., "because I was curious about how often floods occurred in the low lying areas along the Little Colorado River near Leupp and Birdspring communities.

"This person's response was," she said, "'Do you mean the time the Japanese caskets were floating down the river?"'

Her story about the offhand comment led to a 10 years of inquiry and research. The result was presented as one of three panelists at a session titled "Sharing a Historic Space: African Americans, Native Americans, and Nikkei."

The session was held during the Japanese American National Museum's multi-state project, "Enduring Communities: The Japanese American Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah" in Denver July 3 to 6.

"I knew nothing about Japanese people or caskets and what this person was saying," said Begay. "I asked him, 'What Japanese? What caskets?'"

He jokingly replied, "They used to be there at the old Leupp School."

He was referring to a detaining center during World War II. Located on the Navajo Reservation, it once housed 70 to 80 Japanese American men for a period of eight months.

Begay decided to look into it and involved her seventh grade class at Little Singer Community School Inc. They began an investigation during the 1998-99 school year.

Her students interviewed more than 20 people in and around the Leupp area, predominantly in the Navajo language.

"In order to include the richness of Leupp's history, said Begay, "we dug as far back as the mid-1800s to present."

Sites in the area where many of the buildings once stood were explored.

"We used markers to give us an idea about the sizes of the buildings," she said.

The research revealed that the facility was called the Leupp Penal Colony or the Leupp Citizen Isolation Camp. After the Leupp school was closed in 1938 following a massive flood, four years later it was renovated to house the Japanese detainees.

After Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941, and the U.S. declared war on Japan, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans, as well as first generation Japanese, were relocated throughout the U.S. through Executive Order 9066 to concentration camps.

They were relocated without trial or due process. They lost their homes, their land, all that they owned.

Begay's research revealed several reasons that the Japanese men were sent to the Leupp Penal Colony. She said that many of these men questioned what they deemed were violations of their civil rights and were labeled as troublemakers and sent to the Citizen Isolation Camps in either Moab, Utah, or Leupp.

Begay said the one of the Japanese detainees, Harry Ueno, had documented his experience at the Leupp Penal Colony and mentioned that they repaired an old vehicle then drove it to Flagstaff to pick up food for the detainees. Lucian Long, an employee at the camp, confirmed this story saying that the vehicle was used inside and around the camp.

Interviews of Leupp residents revealed that Diné referred to the Japanese detainees as "narrow eyes," said Begay. Some said that they were initially afraid of the Japanese but, in time, they learned of their friendliness.

The Japanese men even learned how to say hello in Navajo, or yah'teeh, as Navajos passed by the camp on their way to the trading post.

"A woman named Sylvia Fredericks (now deceased) remembered that in 1942 when they were passing by the isolation center her brother told her, 'Don't look towards the camp or those men might eat you,'" Begay said.

"Of course, she looked and nothing happened. She learned of their friendliness. Regrettably, she recalled seeing Japanese writing on the walls and not doing anything about it.

"Others recalled a heavily guarded facility with more than 100 guards," she said. "There were four watchtowers in each corner of the fenced boundary. However the fence was not of barbed wire but a low fence not more than five feet high."

While guards were posted everywhere, it seemed that the Japanese men were allowed to venture away from the camp's isolated environment.

Masaji Inoshita, 89, who with his parents, brothers and sisters was interned at the Gila River Indian Reservation Internment Camp in Arizona, retold what his close friend Nimasu Oishi had told him when he was incarcerated at Leupp Isolation Center.

"The Leupp Penal Colony had served as an ordinance depot," Oishi told him. "It was a place for the Army to store heavy artillery, including gun shells, before being transported to various seaports."

Oishi said that though he was a prisoner the Leupp camp was a "nice place."

"He told me many stories about the Leupp Citizen Isolation Camp," Inoshita said. "One story he told me is that he had plans to get married in Phoenix and how the camp director Paul Robertson drove him all the way to Phoenix from Leupp so that his marriage could take place and then after the marriage drove my friend Nimasu back to Leupp."

When the camp closed and the detainees were released in December of 1943, Oishi then moved to Phoenix to be with his wife and became a gardener. Robertson too had moved to Phoenix so, of course, said Inoshita, Oishi became a gardener for Robertson's family.

Begay said her research turned up articles about the leniency of Robertson.

"He was criticized for his friendliness to the detainees," she said. "For inviting them to his home for lunch and even taking them to Hopi snake dances. He was sensitive to their needs and was responsible for their release from the camp when it was time for them to return to their families."

Closure of the Leupp Penal Colony was in December 1943, eight months after it had opened. Begay said it was due to budget problems.

As a teacher of special needs students since 1998, Begay said that today only three of the original houses are still standing and occupied by Navajos. What she saw when her students visited the site were not only remains of demolished buildings but also a bunch of chips from burned coal.

About the off-hand remark, Begay said, "It was meant only as a joke. I'm thinking that about that time there was a flooding of the Mississippi River and news accounts reported that caskets were drifting about. I think it was in reference to this news."

For information purposes, said Begay, no Japanese detainees ever died at the Leupp Penal Colony.

The session in Denver explored not only the Native American experience but also the African American, showing the "enormous importance of space," said Greg Robinson, session moderator and a professor of history at the University of Quebec.

"In cases when the Japanese Americans and other groups come into close physical contact, they become friendly, they make connections with each other and they are able to help each other," Robinson said.

"When it occurs in a context where contact is manipulated or setup, certainly in the interest of dominant white groups, with this group the Japanese Americans got to know the Navajo because they are confined without any due process."

Lynch is a freelance writer in Denver.

Text size: A A A  email this pageE-mail this story