September 27, 2020

An Interview with Marlene Shigekawa

Author, Filmmaker, and President of the Poston Community Alliance

Interviewed by Leonard Chan

We arrived in Parker, Arizona one warm spring day. The buses were taking everyone to the Poston Internment Camp approximately 16 miles away. I wasn’t sure what to expect, just as those that had arrived at this very site almost exactly 76 years earlier.

The biggest difference was that I was only visiting and the Japanese American internees, all those years ago, were facing a very uncertain future of confinement that could last for years.

That was my first pilgrimage to the Poston Internment Camp site back in April of 2018.

This coming first weekend in October was to be the date for this year’s pilgrimage to Poston. Instead, the organizers of the event will be holding a virtual free event over the Internet on October 3rd and 4th. (More Information)

To help fill us in on this virtual event and to help answer a few of our question, we have Marlene Shigekawa, president of the Poston Community Alliance, the organizers for these pilgrimages.

Hi Marlene, thank you for doing this interview. Let’s start by having you tell the reader a little bit about yourself and about your connection to the Poston Internment Camp.

I was born in the Poston Camp in October 1944. My family left Poston on September 19, 1945 and returned to Anaheim California where I grew up.

I became involved in efforts to preserve the Poston site in 2003 when I attended a visioning session that included members of the Japanese American community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes. After we formed our nonprofit organization, The Poston Community Alliance, I became an officer and eventually became the president. As the president, I have secured funding for all the preservation projects that out nonprofit organization has undertaken.

Since you were too young to remember anything about Poston, when did you start to learn more about it? Was it a difficult subject to talk about for your parents and family? When did you make your first pilgrimage to Poston and tell us something about that experience?

My parents spoke about “camp” between themselves sharing memories of friends they met there. As a youngster, I wasn’t sure what kind of camp it was until I learned when I was in high school that they actually were imprisoned in camp. My brother learned about it in class and came home and asked my mother. She told us the truth. I was in shock. After that experience, I began to ask my mother more about what had happened to them.

A poignant moment was when my mother, a graduate of USC’s pharmacy school and a drug store owner on Terminal Island before they were evacuated, revealed to me that she lost everything. Her drug store was ransacked.

I made my first visit to Poston in 1992 with my daughter and husband. I felt the pain and shame they must have felt, the desolation, the rejection by their own country.

Tell us about the Poston Community Alliance – its mission, goals, and what it is currently working on? Are the long range plans to restore one of the old school buildings and use it as a visitor center/museum? I believe in 2018, it was mentioned that there were grants available if you could find matching funds. How did that turn out?

The mission of the Poston Community Alliance is to preserve Poston’s incarceration history in order to uphold social justice for all Americans, regardless of race, religion and ethnicity. Through multimedia education and the preservation of stories, artifacts, and historic structures, Poston’s unique multicultural history, involving Japanese Americans and Native Americans, will be kept alive.

You can find more information about the Poston Community Alliance on our website.

Since 2009 we have received grant funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, National Trust for Historic Preservation, California State Library, and several private foundations. With this funding we have completed an oral history project, barrack relocation, restoring the 8 adobe classrooms, and production of a documentary film.

We are in the process of restoring a former library building, restoring a barrack to serve as our Interpretive Center, and producing a multimedia education project titled Poston Live. It includes a short narrative film and a research document – Sharing a Desert Home.

Tell us about your upcoming virtual event. Like most of these pilgrimage events, they have grown to be much more than reunions for former internees. They are now important educational events. What are you doing to reach a wider audience than just those that were directly connected with the camp? Please feel free to highlight some of the things that you are most excited about or that you would really like people to catch.

This year due to the COVID pandemic, we are presenting a free Poston Virtual Pilgrimage on Oct. 3-4, 10:30am-12:30pm PDT.

Although we will not gather in Poston this year, we’ve been able to extend our reach to many more than those who would have been able to be with us at Poston. Internet technology has enabled us to include over 450 people who have registered so far and who are new to the Poston experience. We are very excited to present our first Poston Virtual Pilgrimage.

We are happy to have Dennis Patch, Tribal Chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, give a welcome speech.

There are a variety of presentations from former Poston incarcerees, descendants who are book authors speaking on Nisei veterans, paintings of Gene Sogioka, religious faith in Poston, discovery of artifacts, and a dance performance.

Our highlight will be a book reading by Derek Mio, lead actor in the TV series The Terror-Infamy. He will be reading my children’s book, Welcome Home Swallows.

You can find the complete agenda on our registration page.

Tell us about the Native Americans that live on the site that Poston resides in. What is their interest in preservation of the site and why?

Because the Tribal Council of the Colorado River Indian Tribes recognizes that, were it not for the Japanese Americans, their infrastructure including the irrigation canals, the reservation would not be as developed as it is today. During the incarceration, Japanese farmers developed the land into thriving agricultural fields, which enabled the Native Americans to further develop it once the Japanese Americans left.

Dennis Patch is supportive of preserving Poston’s history and the importance of the JA presence in contributing to their success as a tribe.

There doesn’t seem to be any good general books about Poston except books written from the perspective of former internees. What books and or websites can you recommend for people to read and learn more about Poston?

Our website has information on Poston’s history.

Books Include:

Sharing a Desert Home by Ruth Okimoto

The Governing of Men by Alexander Leighton

An American Family Album: Poston Camp 2 1942-1944: The Paintings of Gene Isao Sogioka by J. S. La Spina

Poston, Camp II, Block 211 by Jack Matsuoka

Dear Miss Breed by Joanne Oppenheim

There’s a bunch of general questions that people may have, such as why Poston was divided into three camps? Where can you find maps of the camp locations? What remains can be found and what were the buildings that are still standing used for? Were the three camps run separately with different people in charge or were they all under one person and administration? How much interaction was there between the internees at the three camps? Many of the stories told from former internees seem to only shed light on only one camp as if the others didn’t even exist. Did the children from the three camps all go to the centralized school buildings that are still standing?

Can the answers to these and other questions be found in the books and websites that you might be able to recommend and, if not, can you answer a few of these?

Some of the answers, like maps and general history can be found on our website and on the websites listed on our resources page. Here are some of the answers to your questions.

Because the population of Poston was so large – nearly 18,000 and was one of the largest – they divided it into 3 camps with Camp I having 10,000 and the remaining in the other two camps.

At the Camp I Elementary School Site, 10 adobe classrooms built by JA are still standing as well as a library building. The shell of the auditorium is still standing. After the JA left the Native Americans used the structures.

Each camp had their own director and camp administration and schools.

The camps were three miles apart, so only if you had some business to undertake would you visit the other camps. You also needed to find a ride.

Are there any plans to republish your two wonderful children’s books “Blue Jays in the Desert” and “Welcome Home Swallow”? I wish more people had a chance to actually read and own them.

No, but the presentation of Blue Jay in the Desert will be on our website under the pilgrimage link after Oct. 3.

Please explain to our readers why you think it is important to preserve the Poston site and it memories and what they can do to help.

We must never forget what happened at Poston and the other sites so that it will not happen again.

Through the sacrifices of our ancestors, we are able to uphold social justice and the Constitutional rights of all Americans, regardless of race and ethnicity. By preserving their memory, as a people who were unjustly treated based on their race, we are reminded of the need to be ever vigilant in advocating for justice for all.

Thanks again Marlene. We wish you much success with your virtual event.