Forced Relocation and The Owens Valley

Numu (Paiutes) and Japanese-Americans and Forced Relocations to and from the Owens Valley

The Japanese-American workers pictured in the featured image are standing, stooping, and kneeling in the shadows of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in Owens Valley, California - and their presence on the land highlights colonial and capitalist themes that underpin the history of the valley itself. Their forced removal and internment during World War II to this isolated rural area is not a unique history to the Owens Valley. Nor is it the only local story of removal.

Adjacent to the Manzanar Relocation Center is the site of a colonial military project in the valley called Fort Independence. The creation of the fort in 1862 focused on quelling violent skirmishes between Numu (Owens Valley Paiute) and ranchers and farmers who invaded Numu homelands and devastated their food resources. The destruction of seed bearing plants, the deforestation of pine nuts for timber, and the Anglo settlements on Numu irrigated lands and agricultural fields created the atmosphere of violence that Civil War California Volunteers then exacerbated. The colonial focus on terminating Numu land rights and removing them from the valley only temporarily kept them from their homeland, they returned months after their removal in 1863 to salvage their property and enter wage-work on farms, ranches, and within the growing mining industry.

While the Numu had been removed from the valley in 1863, Japanese-American citizens were forcibly relocated to the valley in 1942. The ethnocentric experiences are similar: confined to a block of land away from their homes, a military presence policing their lives, the use of labor to create a self-sufficient federal reservation, and the incorporation of their labor into U.S. capitalist production. These colonial policies, like Native reservation life throughout the U.S., brought diverse families together to build a community through work and non-work activities. The mixed memories of internees toward their lives in the camp highlight the connection to place created within Manzanars two-year lifespan.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, a co-author of the memoir "Farewell to Manzanar," documented her families experiences there. She remembered her brother Woody declare, “If we’re gonna live in this place, we better get to work,” and she described in detail her family plugging the holes of their barracks, and community creations of bathroom dividers for privacy, public parks, gardens, farms, schools, and churches for recreational and spiritual socializing. However, she also contested positive memories taking place under guard towers and beside barbed wire, “you could measure your liberty by how far they’d let you go.” The creation of community at Manzanar focused on labor and non-labor activities, which Jeanne Houston’s quotes embody.

Other residents such as Nob Kamibayashi remembered, “We met new friends from throughout the camp. To this day I have friends who were in the same class as me;” Victor Muraoka added, “My job was washing dishes, sweeping, mopping, and helping the cooks. I worked there the longest and hated to leave,” and Saburo Sasaki and Chiyeko “Chickie” Hiraoka Matoba respectively stated, “[We went to the co-op] for ice cream and soda pop, a haircut, or buy a new pair of shoes,” and “School was sort of [the] center of my activities; and so was sports. There were a lot of sports.” These memories concern work and non-work practices, and the positive memories of life and community under civil and military rule. The differences between reservation, concentration, and internment camps consist of the actual mobility of people confined in each place. However, a similarity of all three focus on aspects of family creation and communal work, which for Japanese-citizens at Manzanar created community outside of their California, Oregon, and Washington homes.

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Manzanar Reward Rd, California