Living History in Rural Colorado
By Richard Woo
The Russell Family Foundation
It’s Tuesday afternoon and the COF conference is winding down while the community site visit to rural Colorado ramps up. The next two days promise to be deeply moving and build on the conference themes of social change, social justice & social innovation.
Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) and Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) have organized a learning and healing pilgrimage to two sites of historical significance to our respective communities.
The first is Amache, where over 10,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II in a desolate camp of makeshift wooden barracks. The second is Sand Creek, site of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 where over 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were slaughtered by Colorado militia volunteers. Ironically, the Indians were camped at Sand Creek awaiting peace talks with the U.S. military.
This is day one and I’ve been absorbed in “living history” by talking with Bob Fuchigami, who was imprisoned at Amache as a teenager (age 12) from 1942-1945. Bob, age 79 and a retired university professor living in Denver, is active in the historical preservation of the Amache Camp.
When asked about the Amache experience, Bob shares the following recollections, which include uncanny associations with my own family history, though I am Chinese American and they were not interned:
* Bob and his family were given six days notice by the U.S. government in 1942 to evacuate their farm and home in Yuba City in Northern California. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 authorized the forced evacuation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals in 10 internment camps across rural America for purposes of national security. By coincidence, my maternal grandmother was born in Yuba City in the late 1800s.
* My dad, Bill Woo, told me that during the wartime hysteria following the Japanese bombing attack on Pearl Harbor, his family took precautionary measures by posting handmade signs in their car and farm trucks stating: “We are Chinese Americans.” There were many hands to make light work of those signs. My father was the first born son of 19 children in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles.
* Bob’s family were farmers and grew peaches and almonds. My dad and his brothers farmed cotton, alfalfa & safflower in Central California from the mid-1940s onward.
* In 1942 with no knowledge of their ultimate destination, the Fuchigami Family joined thousands of others at a detention center in Merced, California. Coincidentally, I was born ten years later in 1952 in Los Banos, California-30 miles from the county seat, Merced.
* From Merced, the Fuchigami Family and others were transported by rail for three days to Amache, often shut off from the light by shuttered windows to prevent them from seeing the surrounding landscape.
* Today, the tour bus, carrying more than 20 of us including Bob, crossed the same railroad tracks he traveled in 1942 destined for Amache. It is an eerie moment as Bob shares that memory with all of us.
* Settling into the barren high desert of Amache was a shock for the Fuchigami’s, having come from the relatively mild climate of Northern California. Bob recalls winter temperatures dropping to 22 degres below zero. The barracks serving as their home had dirt floors and wooden walls without insulation.
* As a 12 year old boy, Bob remembers being frightened by the armed guards, barbed wire fences and nightly intrusion of watchtower search lights.
* Bob’s mom and dad were 52 years and 60 years old respectively. If losing their farm, their house and their possessions was hard, camp life was harsher still. His mother survived a stroke in camp leaving her health compromised. Bob’s dad fell from a farm truck during camp and broke his back.
As Bob says before we head to our hotel rooms:
“The camp was not a good experience for us. I continue to do this preservation work for them (his parents). I keep asking myself: why would our government do this to us?”
Tomorrow we visit Amache and Sand Creek. While I look forward to doing so out of respect for those who came before us, I am also anxious about what emotions will be stirred by this “living history.”
Places have spiritual power because their physical presence hint at what has passed before. Places tie together events even though those events are separated by time.
That’s why it’s significant that Bob’s family farmed in Yuba City, where decades before my grandmother was born. It means something to me that Bob and I were separated by a mere 30 miles (Merced to Los Banos) and ten years of time. It’s haunting to cross the same railroad tracks where the Fuchigami Family passed 68 years before.
In the largest sense, Amache and Sand Creek are tied together by place though these events unfolded tens of decades apart. Such violations were sparked by a social dynamic that sadly transcends time and place, that is “fear of the other.”
For that reason, we are visiting these places to honor the intertwined history between indigenous peoples and Asian Pacific Islanders. Some may contend that dwelling on the past, especially such tragic events, is futile and self-defeating. In the framework of making positive change as described in Chip Heath’s book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Things Are Hard,” you might even label this TBU = True But Useless.
To the contrary, I believe this journey is indeed seeking the motivational “bright spots” that Chip Heath encourages all to do, including:
* BUILDING partnerships (NAP, AAPIP & allied funders) that fuel a common purpose to serve through philanthropy;
* SEEING tangible local community efforts to heal the wounds of history through cross-cultural education like the Koshare Indian Museum in Amache; and
* FEELING moved to take actions through our philanthropic work in the context of our communities back home that promote change, justice and innovation.
Originally published on the Philanthropy 411 blog.