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Digging Into Kooskia's Past Unearths a Timeless Lesson
By Donna Emert
Historian and historical archaeologist Priscilla Wegars, founder and volunteer curator of the University of Idaho's Asian American Comparative Collection, recently published the only complete historical account of a WWII internment camp, located about 30 miles outside of Kooskia, Idaho.
The book, "Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp," unearths the history of the detention center and the site upon which it was built, focusing on the period between mid-1943 through mid-1945, when the camp held 265 “enemy aliens” of Japanese ancestry.
That story began late Dec. 7, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. government began arresting people of Japanese ancestry, particularly those on previously established “watch lists.”
Denied due process, many were shipped to Justice Department internment camps run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service at Missoula, Mont., and elsewhere. Some residents were later sent to Santa Fe, N.M., and other camps. From there, they volunteered for work at the camp near Kooskia.
The Kooskia Internment Camp was an INS detention and road building facility. Many of the 265 “enemy aliens” interned there were from California. Others were taken from Alaska, Hawaii, Peru, Mexico and Panama. The Kooskia camp was one of many internment camps in the nation, but it was the only work camp. Beginning in February 1942, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) removed and incarcerated approximately 120,000 West Coast Americans of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were American citizens.
The Kooskia camp had two features that most facilities housing Japanese internees lacked: residents were paid for their work on Highway 12 between Lewiston, Idaho, and Missoula, Mont.; and the camp was built on the scenic Lochsa River.
Though internees were considered “paid volunteers,” they were not at liberty to leave the camp.
“These men had never done anything against the U.S.,” Wegars says. ”They were Buddhist ministers, reporters, photographers, martial artists – some even had sons in the U.S. Army. They just looked like the enemy.”
There is a strong push to realign historical fact and what passes as history, says Wegars, and establishing accuracy begins with clearly defining some terms. President Roosevelt called the U.S. camps concentration camps. That reference was changed when history revealed the devastation of Nazi concentration camps. Historians are now fighting for clarity.
“We use the term ‘internment camps' too freely for all these confinement sites,” said Wegars. ‘Internment camp’ is accurate for Kooskia and other INS camps, whereas the WRA camps are more accurately called incarceration camps. We really need this revised terminology to distinguish between the two types of camps."
Wegars hopes clarifying the details will illuminate the big picture and provide insights into recent events.
“I hope the Kooskia Internment Camp becomes better known, so this type of injustice never happens again,” says Wegars.
“When Muslim Americans were being profiled after 9/11," she says, "it was Japanese Americans who bravely stepped forward and said, ‘You did this to us. You can’t do this to them. Be careful what you do here. Your reaction is once again based in fear and not on facts.’”