Oral History Adds Understanding to the Multi-Layered History of Manzanar

In September 2019, GBI entered into an agreement with the National Park Service to deploy a Research Associate to conduct historical interpretation and engage with various communities, including Japanese Americans and Tribal peoples, at Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar is, of course, best known as a Japanese American internment site during World War II. This project aims to increase understanding of what occurred on this site, and also how the relocation of Japanese Americans was seen by those who inhabited the land beforehand. These efforts will help the NPS and visitors to Manzanar better understand and contextualize the history of the site.

Research Associate, Katy Foster, has contributed by staffing the visitor center, drafting brochures, and consolidating and organizing research data. But more important are the intangible outcomes, identified by NPS as “trust, appreciation, and engagement… The Site’s goal is to build relationships, not just facilitate interactions.” In support of this, Katy attended the Manzanar Reunion in Las Vegas with many camp survivors and family members. “It was truly an experience I will never forget,” says Katy.

As part of her efforts to interpret the multi-layered history of Manzanar, Katy has also reached out to local tribal communities. In addition to attending cultural events and cultural committee meetings, Katy conducted interviews in order to acquire personal accounts of the site, from before, during, and after the period of internment. Among those interviewed was Beverly Mestas Newell (pictured above), an elder from the   Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone reservation. Katy explains, “She had memories of the day when the Japanese Americans came to the Owens Valley to be relocated to Manzanar War Relocation Center.  She also mentioned how many family members went to Indian boarding schools and lost much of their language and culture.  She’s given back to her community by fighting for water rights and working for the tribe.”

Below are some excerpts from Katy’s interview with Beverly Mestas Newell. Our thanks to Katy for her excellent work, and to Beverly for allowing us to share her story.

  • [My father was from the] Navajo tribe from New Mexico.
  • At about 3 years old he [father] was taken away from the village from his parents to be taken to a Catholic Indian school in Albuquerque, New Mexico…  And that’s where he stayed…until he graduated high school. His father lost everything; he took to drink because they took all the boys away from him. He was a sheepherder and didn’t have any help left. 
  • He [father] never learned Navajo; he was taken too young.
  • Catholics ran the school.  And they all automatically became Catholic. He [father] was Catholic. That’s how my sister and I became Catholic because the nuns somehow found out in Lone Pine that our dad was Catholic so they came knocking on our door and said it was time for you to get baptized. 
  • [On the boarding schools:] I think it wiped out a whole generation of languages because none of them were able to speak their own language in their school.
  • They [Grandparents] came from Keehler Darwin area. They were nomadic throughout the year, lots of seed gathering, hunting, seeing tribes throughout the Owens Valley following seasons.  The pinenuts [were collected] in the early fall. Rabbit hunting was late because you had to wait until it cooled off. Deer was in the winter cold weather because those animals were not edible in the summer months.  A lot of seed gathering, gathering sugarcane, pasida almost like peanut butter, gathered the tea, ground squirrels called kuba and would roast those, dove hunting.
  • Dad said you are never going to an Indian school.  They would send [ ]  out into the communities and say we got this school and it’d be good down here because it’s a boarding school; it’s all Indians – that’s how they would entice you to come.
  • They had kids run away from those [Indian] schools all the time.  I would imagine they miss home; that’s not where their home was. 
  • [On Stewart Indian School:] They could speak their language, Paiute or Shoshone, and that was almost a bang on your hand. 
  • Way back then, everybody volunteered, it was more of a community at that point and now it’s grown apart right now.  It’s kind of depressing to where it was at one time.
  • [What is behind that change?] Drugs, alcohol, no jobs in the area, people move away and don’t come back. [They kids] go and get their degrees and work somewhere else.
  • I was on the Owens Valley Board of Trustees. I’ve been on the Toiyabe Board of Directors. I was on the Water Resource Board. I went to college at 55. First I went to Santa Barbara College, then I transferred to Cal Poly San Obisbo. [Degree in] business in administration and human resource management. When I graduated Toiyabe Indian Health Project, I started a job at human resources and I loved it.
  • We were on a death march at one point in time.  They rounded up the Indians in our part of the valley and marched them to Ft. Tejon.  They drove them over the mountains. Some of them died; some got away and came back. That’s part of our history.
  • I’d like people to know that there still is a prejudice against Natives, like it or not, we were here first.
  • [What do you think Manzanar has meant to the community when they talked about making this a historic site?] Good. It needs to be recognized that something happened there.  I’ve heard through people talking that there was going to be outrage that it was going to turn into a historical site about the internees. 
  • The valley was our home, we didn’t have towns.
  • I came from here, when they dug up 2,000 year old bones, I’m probably related to them with my DNA; I’d be part of that person. Because that’s why I’m here, where I came from.

 

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