Mural on Alcohol Recovery Center, renovated by Colorado River Indian Tribes, former Colorado River “Relocation Center,” Poston I Archival Pigment Print. (Ira Nowinski/The Bancroft Library, 2009)
Mural on Alcohol Recovery Center, renovated by Colorado River Indian Tribes, former Colorado River “Relocation Center,” Poston I. Archival pigment print. (Ira Nowinski/The Bancroft Library, 2009)

SAN FRANCISCO — The National Japanese American Historical Society presents “Passages from Poston: Contemporary Photographs of a Former Japanese American Confinement Site” at the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center, Building 640, 640 Old Mason St. in the Presidio of San Francisco.

The exhibit, which opened May 3 and is on view through Oct. 31, features 25 contemporary photographs from The Ira Nowinski California Native American Photograph Archive at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, taken by professional documentary photographer Ira Nowinski at the historic Poston, Ariz. War Relocation Authority camp of World War II.

According to Nowinski, “While photographing California Native Americans, I was invited by the director of the Mojave Museum on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation to photograph Poston and Tribal Recognition Day in early March of 2009. It was explained to me that there were many buildings still standing from the internment and the resulting photographs feature these buildings in states of disrepair. The school buildings in Camp I, built by the Japanese internees, were used by tribal members for alcohol recovery centers and other tribal uses after World War II.”

Poston was opened on May 8, 1942. The Colorado River Indian Tribal Council wanted no part in the use of their lands to confine Japanese Americans in the same way that Native Americans had been persecuted. Despite their protests, the camp was built and jointly operated by the U.S. government’s War Relocation Authority under the Department of the Interior.

The influx of Japanese Americans onto the reservation lands transformed the center into the third-largest populated city (up to 17,641) and one of the most arable farmlands in Arizona at the time.

Poston was divided into three separate camps: Camps I, II, and III. Prior to the creation of the camps, the government unsuccessfully attempted to relocate Native American tribal people living in isolated pueblos in Arizona and along the Colorado River onto the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation.

The buildings of Poston were wooden structures that were built by the Army to house the Japanese American incarcerees. Once at Poston, Japanese American men were recruited to construct buildings for Camp I out of adobe bricks and then added an exterior white coating. The bricks used to make these buildings were created on a volunteer basis by the incarcerees, mostly the women and children. These buildings were used for schools, a gymnasium, and other community buildings for Native American tribal people who moved into the area after the end of the war, despite the belief that the buildings were intended for the incarcerees.

While they were interned, the Japanese American men were also used as cheap labor to build irrigation ditches to make the land viable for farming. The center closed on Nov. 28, 1945. The remaining barracks in Camps II and III, other buildings, and irrigation systems built during the war were used afterwards as housing and infrastructure for the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi, and Navajo Native American tribal people.

The infrastructure of the irrigation ditches and buildings created by the incarcerees allowed for the successful development of farms by the Navajo tribal people after the war. Camp I was used for alcohol recovery centers and other tribal uses. Some original maps can be found at

NJAHS will host a series of public programs in conjunction with the exhibition, including an opening reception, film screening of the documentary “Passing Poston” (Fly on the Wall Productions), and a panel discussion on Saturday, May 31, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the MIS Historic Learning Center.

The panelists will include photographer Nowinski; “Passing Poston” director Joe Fox; high school teacher Mas Hashimoto, who was incarcerated in Poston Camp II; and Ruth Okimoto, a former Poston incarceree, author of “Sharing a Desert Home,” and an interviewee in “Passing Poston.”

The schedule for Saturday is as follows: 1 to 2 p.m. – Light refreshments reception; 2 to 4 p.m. — “Passing Poston” (106 minutes) with 10-minute intermission; 4 to 4:45 p.m. — panel discussion with Q&A.

Other public programs are being planned throughout the summer.

Museum admission is $10 general, free for NJAHS members, veterans and children 12 and under. For more information, visit

NJAHS is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to the collection, preservation, authentic interpretation, and sharing of historical information of the Japanese American experience for the diverse broader national and global community. Through exhibitions, public programs, publications, workshops, it reaches its various audiences at its dual sites: S.F. headquarters, 1684 Post St. in Japantown, and the MIS Historic Learning Center, located at the original home of the MIS Language School.

For more information, visit or call (415) 921-5007.

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