A proposed wind farm in Idaho adjacent to the Minidoka National Historic Site, the location of a concentration camp between 1942 and 1945, has elicited strong opposition from Japanese Americans in Seattle who say that the project would cause permanent damage to the landmark.
The Minidoka camp housed 13,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II, most of whom came from Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
LS Power, the for-profit energy company behind the project, applied to use land adjacent to Minidoka, which is run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in 2021. If built, the wind farm could contain up to 400 wind turbines and supply more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity at peak capacity — equivalent to roughly half of Seattle City Light’s total generating capacity.
As part of the Environmental Impact Statement process (EIS), BLM held multiple open houses with affected community members, including one in Mercer Island on March 2. Dozens of community members attended the open house, many of whom were Japanese American survivors or descendants of survivors of the camp.
Minidoka has become a pilgrimage site, with survivors and descendants making the journey every year to remember the painful histories of incarceration. In recent years, the federal government has invested more resources in the site, establishing an interpretive center and increasing educational efforts. Many consider it a sacred place, so the idea that it could now be ringed with wind turbines is insulting, especially in light of the historic mistreatments by the U.S. government.
Mary Tanaka Abo was a young child living with her family in Juneau, Alaska, when the FBI arrested and jailed her father immediately after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. A few months later, she and her mother and siblings were sent to the Minidoka camp.
When the 1988 Civil Liberties Act was passed and the U.S. officially apologized for Japanese American incarceration, Abo began to engage in education to ensure it would never happen again.
Part of these efforts included returning to Minidoka again with her older sister. Abo said that the historical site and the views of the desolate landscape around it helped her remember and heal.
“I’m hoping that the land and the viewshed will remain for years to come as evidence of a wrong that has been righted,” Abo wrote in a statement to BLM. “I do not want to have to cover my eyes to [not] see the wind turbines when I come to Minidoka.”
Artist and community organizer Erin Shigaki said that Minidoka was a place of both great sorrow and joy for Japanese Americans and that the site was an important gathering place for the community.
“We really think that it’s important to have the pilgrimage on the sacred land where our family members were, where people died and where people survived and celebrated great joys,” she said. “Because our community really had to take care of each other to make it. So when we go on pilgrimage it’s pretty heavy, but it’s also a time of gathering and reunion.”
Shigaki is the co-chair of the Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee and a fourth generation Japanese American (yonsei). Like many other Japanese Americans, wartime incarceration is not just part of American history but also her own family’s history. Shigaki’s father was born in Minidoka — delivered by a horse veterinarian because of a lack of available physicians. Her mother’s parents were also survivors who were matched while living in the camp.
Especially in the age of digital distraction, Shigaki said that making the pilgrimage to Minidoka offers descendants a unique opportunity to connect deeply with memories of their ancestors.
“I think it’s important for us to understand what our family members saw, the kind of smells and the dust, and the quiet,” she said. “To me, also the fact that they did experience some level of peace because of course, like everywhere else, there were beautiful birds and there were gorgeous sunsets. You know, things that were sustaining them.”
Bif Brigman, a member of the pilgrimage planning committee, said that visiting Minidoka was one of the most profound experiences of his life. He said that there was a double standard in whose histories were protected and honored.
“I think white folks in particular should be really thoughtful and sensitive to what experiences other people have, non-white people have,” Brigman said. “White people don’t want our grandparents and great grandparents disrespected. We want the things that matter to us to be documented and shared with the world. Why isn’t that afforded to everybody else?”
The BLM has outlined four potential alternatives for the wind farm, as well as a fifth option of terminating the project altogether. According to BLM Shoshone Field Office Manager Codie Martin, there has been overwhelming opposition to the proposal at all of the open houses held in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, so far. Martin will ultimately decide if the project is allowed to go ahead after the EIS process is completed, though more senior management could intervene as well.
Many attendees were also angered by one of the BLM documents that labeled Japanese and Native American visitors and pilgrims as “tourists,” claiming that the agency hasn’t taken their concerns seriously.
Survivors and descendants of the Minidoka concentration camp said that the BLM’s actions in even considering the proposed wind farm were a breach of President Joe Biden’s commitments to honoring their history and governing with environmental justice principles.
The proposed wind farm is just the latest project in a growing trend that some analysts have called the “unjust transition,” wherein historically oppressed and exploited communities are once again forced to carry a disproportionate burden of the transition away from fossil fuels.
“When Biden came into office, he offered a couple different executive orders that both included equity for underserved communities,” Shigaki said. “To me, this is just a real slap in the face and not jiving with that at all. We shouldn’t have to choose clean energy over the stories of a community of color that endured this tragedy, period.”
Update: This story has been changed to reflect Mabel and Paul's relationship. The newspaper regrets the error.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Mar. 8-14, 2023 issue.