“Spies.” “Disloyals.” “Japs.” These words erased and replaced the names of eighteen thousand Japanese American citizens imprisoned at the Tulelake Segregation Center. They were no longer individuals. They were all the same in the U.S. government’s eyes, linked by their ancestry to those who attacked Pearl Harbor. “A Jap’s a Jap,” said General John DeWitt to justify internment. To be Japanese meant you were stripped of your freedom and undeserving of humane treatment. Tulelake Segregation Center surely embodies this sentiment. The entire town of Tulelake could fit in a just few of the barracks that held over ten Japanese American families. The barracks were not only overcrowded, but also enclosed in layers and layers of barbed wire. Those imprisoned were closely watched by armed guards wherever they went. The only crime they had committed was being Japanese.
Tulelake Segregation Center is a unit of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument; it is also half an hour from Lava Beds National Monument. Last week, along with my co-workers at Lava Beds Resource Management Division, I took a tour with an interpretative ranger of the segregation center. One of the most powerful moments during the tour was the visit to the jail. “Show me the way to go home,” reads a graffiti message on the walls of one jail cell. When a nation you considered your homeland isolates and brands you as an imposter, where do you call home? How do you make sense of a government that not only turns its back on you but also actively spreads racist sentiments against you? “It whipped up hatred and fear toward an entire group of people based solely on our ancestry,” writes George Takei, whose family was imprisoned at Tulelake. Takei calls internment “America’s Great Mistake.” Today, we are living with this legacy. Yes, the U.S. government has formally apologized for its blatantly racist segregation of Japanese Americans, but that by no means translates to a nation free from discrimination against Asian-Americans and other people of color.
After the tour, I reflected on how much further we have left in this nation to progress. We have so much to improve upon that I can’t help but feel sad or angry. However, I also remembered when I spoke with a program manager and resource assistant from our regional inventory and monitoring network. All three of us were Asian-Americans. We shared our experiences working for the National Park Service as people of color. I was able to see other people who looked like me and came from similar backgrounds as me achieve genuine success in the NPS.