By BARBARA TAKEI
Nearly a decade has gone by in the Tule Lake Committee’s fight to stop the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) and the Tulelake community’s plan to fence off and expand the Tulelake airfield that covers two-thirds of the concentration camp’s barracks area.
Tule Lake was unique; the only one of the ten War Relocation Authority concentration camps converted to a maximum-security prison and used to punish civil rights protesters who spoke out against the government’s injustice.
The effort to protect this rare and important civil rights site has been a long and challenging journey for the Tule Lake Committee. Had we walked away from this challenge in 2013, the massive three-mile-long, 8-foot-high, barbed-wire-topped fence would have been built in 2015. That fence would create a blight on the landscape and preclude preservation of the concentration camp that imprisoned over 27,000 Japanese Americans — where 331 men, women and children perished, due to illness, maltreatment and despair.
Throughout the postwar years, the federal government performed a major role in erasing the story of Japanese Americans imprisoned in the Tule Lake concentration camp. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation created a white landscape in the Klamath basin, enabling Jim Crowism to exclude people of color from lotteries that gave away homestead farms. The Bureau of Reclamation then gave homesteaders barrack buildings, and gave the city of Tulelake the concentration camp land where barracks once stood so homesteaders could have an airfield for the local crop-dusting business.
The 358-acre Tulelake airfield occupies over two-thirds of the concentration camp barracks land, with the main firebreak road serving as the runway.
The story of Tule Lake airfield’s construction is a continuing source of shock and pain to Tule Lake’s survivors and descendants. At a Tule Lake site tour, Japanese Americans puzzled over how the Tule Lake cemetery site was dug up and left as a huge hole in the ground. A local homesteader volunteered his experience, that a group of homesteaders bulldozed the site for fill-dirt.
“We liked the gravely texture,” he told the group, describing how they filled the grid of ditches surrounding the blocks and barracks with earth from that sacred site. Japanese American participants were too horrified to ask the homesteader if he knew the gravel site they bulldozed was the cemetery.
The FAA appears oblivious to the fact Tule Lake is hallowed ground to Japanese Americans; for over 50 years it has funded efforts to build and maintain an airfield in the middle of this concentration camp. The Tule Lake Committee’s effort to protect the Tule Lake site has been a David-and-Goliath fight, trying to stop destruction from FAA’s “improvement” plan and urging the FAA to move the airfield and not destroy the concentration camp site.
For the past several years, we’ve anticipated a public review process on mandatory environmental studies required by state and federal law, a review that has been repeatedly postponed by the FAA and Modoc County, the airfield’s operator. In October 2022, the FAA informed us these studies would again be postponed to allow the FAA to resume a mandatory National Historic Preservation Act planning and decision-making for the airfield site.
That process, termed Section 106 review, began over a decade ago and was seemingly abandoned after a mismanaged 18-month-long conflict-resolution process that primarily served to amplify conflict among stakeholders.
President Biden stated a commitment to preserving Japanese American incarceration sites in his Day of Remembrance proclamation last February. We urge the Department of Transportation and the FAA to consider the president’s sentiments and commit to maintaining rather than desecrating the Tule Lake concentration camp site.
“Preserving incarceration sites as national parks and historic landmarks is proof of our nation’s commitment to facing the wrongs of our past, to healing the pain still felt by survivors and their descendants, and to ensuring that we always remember why it matters that we never stop fighting for equality and justice for all. My administration is committed to maintaining these national parks and landmarks for future generations and to combating xenophobia, hate, and intolerance.” — President Biden’s DOR proclamation, signed Feb. 18, 2022
In 2017, nearly 40,000 Japanese American and Japanese American organizations urged the FAA and Modoc County to protect the Tule Lake concentration camp, not destroy it.
Five years have gone by since that outcry. We again ask the FAA to consider President Biden’s words and to initiate a feasibility study, a first step in planning how and where to move this primitive rural airfield — recognizing that it is possible to move an airfield, but that it is impossible to move a historic site.
Update on Tule Lake’s Preservation
Disputes with the FAA. For years the Tule Lake Committee has argued with the FAA that Japanese Americans have a spiritual and emotional connection to the concentration camp site, a view the FAA rejected. However, in recent months, the FAA has reversed its position, finally acknowledging that Tule Lake is a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) that has deep personal significance to Japanese Americans. In addition, after years of the Tule Lake Committee fighting to stop the FAA’s proposed fence, the FAA has acknowledged the fence project will have a negative or adverse impact on the historic site.
We are encouraged the FAA has reversed itself and recognizes, as the Tule Lake Committee has continually asserted, that the Tulelake airfield fence will desecrate a place that has deep significance to the Japanese American community and American history.
Although threat to the concentration camp site is a constant concern, the FAA’s acknowledging the site as a TCP forces an awareness that Japanese Americans have an emotional, spiritual and personal relationship to the site. While an incremental gain, this is part of the continuing challenge of fighting the FAA’s deeply-ingrained institutional biases.
In 2023, the FAA indicated it would resume consultation with multiple stakeholders as required by the National Historic Preservation Act, to consider how to preserve a civil rights site they are using as an airfield. Thus far, the FAA has refused to discuss moving the airfield, offering deficient mitigation proposals such as no barbed wire on the proposed fence, and for the FAA to post interpretive signage.
Litigation against City of Tulelake and Oklahoma Modoc Nation. It’s been over four years since the Tule Lake Committee filed a request for an injunction to stop the City of Tulelake from giving away the Tulelake airfield located in the center of the WWII Tule Lake concentration camp. At a City Council meeting in July 2018, Tulelake’s leaders announced a decision to give the concentration camp lands to the Modoc Nation in Oklahoma, after the tribe’s representatives promised to develop aviation on the site.
The Tule Lake Committee’s pro-bono legal team of civil rights attorneys Mark Merin, Yoshinori Himel and Tule Lake descendant Paul Masuhara continue motion-work and court appearances in state and federal courts, challenging the City of Tulelake’s airfield giveaway. Adding to the complexity of litigation, the tribe in Oklahoma is dealing with an unresolved internal leadership dispute, with two separately elected councils and a dis-enrollment crisis that expelled half of the tribe’s 555 members. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has recognized but not intervened in this dispute.
The Tule Lake Committee’s pending federal appeal in the 9th Circuit, Tule Lake Committee v. FAA, et. al., addresses whether Japanese Americans have the right to challenge the airfield giveaway. The appeal awaits oral argument in 2023.
Our state court litigation, Tule Lake Committee v. Follis, et. al. opposes transfer of the Tulelake airfield to a sovereign entity that claims it cannot be sued in state or federal court and is not required to comply with state or federal regulation. In that suit, we await judicial response to the Modoc Nation’s effort to dismiss our case.
Note on the Tule Lake Pilgrimage
The Tule Lake Pilgrimage committee began meeting to consider an in-person pilgrimage in 2023. Given the intimacy of the four-day Tule Lake Pilgrimage, we remain concerned about implementing protocols to protect the health of the most vulnerable. We will meet in February to decide if gathering together will be safe and COVID protocols manageable, or if it will be a virtual or hybrid pilgrimage.