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Creating a Sense of Community in Idaho

I live in a bubble.

I did not grow up nor in my adult life have I traveled and explored the United States, like I feel I should be doing, being an American citizen all my life. It wasn’t until I started working in the Japanese American community that I had various opportunities to travel and broaden my American experience. 

Taking only what I knew from my experiences living in Southern California as a Japanese American, I took my naïve and ignorant self to Idaho, specifically to the Minidoka Pilgrimage, to travel an exhibition for the Japanese American National Museum. It wasn’t until I was in Idaho that I fully and deeply recognized that Japanese Americans were dispersed all around the United States. Japanese Americans were coming all over the place to be rejoined at this place of history. 

I had the pleasure of interviewing and speaking with Mia Russell, Executive Director of Friends of Minidoka who was born in Visalia, California but was raised in Idaho. She shared her experiences growing up in Idaho being multiracial, exploring her identity, ties to Japanese American history, and how she is continuing on the journey of creating community.

Mia Russell, Executive Director of Friends of Minidoka.

Q: Not having a direct relation to the Japanese American incarceration and not learning about it in Idaho, how did you get more interested in exploring Japanese American history and on your path to working at Friends of Minidoka?

I went to a university in Southern California at a really small school called Soka University. There are only about 400 students. That was actually the first time I learned about the incarceration [of Japanese Americans]. We don’t learn about it in Idaho, even though I was in honors classes and grew up two hours from Minidoka. It took me going to college and reading about it in an introductory history class. When I first heard about the camps, I didn’t feel a connection because I didn’t even know what being Japanese American was. I grew up knowing I had family in Japan and would visit them. 

Growing up in Idaho, outside of any sort of community, I didn’t have any concept of Japanese American identity or history. So, I didn’t even connect to the camps when I first heard about them. It was a couple years later when I needed a topic for my senior thesis and I was living in South Pasadena with my aunt, and she said "why don’t you take another look at the camps?" That is when she told me that my uncle’s family was incarcerated. Then I started reading about the camps a little more and is when I discovered that there was even a camp in Idaho. 

My photography professor had been photographing the Manzanar pilgrimage for the Manzanar Committee for over 20 years, so he was my connection to the community. He connected me to folks on the committee and I went to meetings and  interviewed incarcerees on how they felt the National Park Service had preserved their history and how they felt their stories were being told. It was exploring the purpose of pilgrimage and collective memory. That was my first introduction, just as a student. And then I moved back to Idaho and thought that I could keep studying this history and keep looking at the relationship between the community and the NPS. That was kind of my journey. After I finished my masters in museum studies, I got hired by the Friends of Minidoka, so it has just been this rabbit hole that I fell into all from a thesis paper.

Since then, I have been able to visit the other camp sites through work, because they invested in me getting out there to see the other sites and meet the other people involved. I was able to visit all ten camps, plus Crystal City and Honouliuli. I feel like I’ve been reclaiming a Japanese American identity through my work and understanding the Japanese American history and community dynamics. I currently am Vice President of my JACL board, which I didn’t even know we had in Idaho growing up. 

A lot of it has been a dance between "I don’t really have a camp history, personally" and "what am I able to claim as being relevant to still being a Japanese American, an American, someone who is passionate about it, and an Idahoan and everything else?"


Q: Reflecting on growing up in Idaho, how do you think that shaped your cultural identity?

I felt growing up in Idaho, I didn’t fit in to the majority culture, but again I didn’t know what Japanese American community was, so I felt like identity was closely tied to my family. My family is very unique and mixed. 

In California, my grandmother is a Japanese immigrant, my grandpa is second generation Mexican-American, and my cousins are super mixed. My family unit is home to me and that is what my identity is – being in that family, in that space, with those foods. I remember not knowing if certain words we used were Japanese or Spanish until I was much older. There was also some  play on words, like my grandpa is Mexican but he will say ashita mañana when he goes to bed, instead of hasta mañana. 

At the same time, I remember very clearly visiting a lot of my grandmother’s friends in the Central Valley, where there are a lot of Japanese American famers in the area. We would always go to visit Nisei farmers she was friends with and pick fruit. We would go to obon in Visalia or Fresno. I knew there was this one subsection of my people that my grandmother interacted with, but sometimes they would speak Japanese and sometimes they would speak English. I also knew the temple community and we would go to obon, or a rummage sale, or a sukiyaki fundraiser, but that was it. In college, when I read Farewell to Manzanar, I was like "oh, my grandmother’s friends are Nisei" and when it all kind of made sense. It sounds crazy to me now that it took me so long to understand it.

Mia’s grandmother with her children and grandchildren

Even in surveys and the census, I always look for the "multicultural" or "mixed race" option. I do feel like a mixed kid. I do identify with my Japanese side, my Mexican side, and am white-passing. But generationally, I am much closer to the Japanese side because my grandmother’s an immigrant and I grew up knowing about family in Japan, visiting them, and also studied abroad. So it’s interesting in some ways that there are certain touchstones of Japanese American culture that I feel like I have no understanding of but then there are things about Japanese culture that I have a closer connection to than others.


Q: I only experienced Idaho through the Minidoka Pilgrimage and during that time, as you said it becomes like a “mini pop-up Japantown” and I don’t feel like I got a full grasp of what Idaho feels like. Can you describe what it feels like to you being in Idaho on a regular basis? And further elaborate what it felt like coming back from a Southern California college experience?

As part of a college paper I had to write, I had to look up my town and it was 96% white, which was just mind-blowing. It has grown a lot since then and it is starting to get more diverse, but I grew up kind of being somewhat tokenized. There were maybe a couple of Asians at my school. 

Going to college, I think I have a very unique experience just because of the dynamics of Soka University. It is 50% international students and a large population of students are from Japan. I remember interacting with one friend, who is Japanese American and told me her grandfather was at Manzanar and that she didn’t identify with the Japanese students. I was able to better understand the differences between Japanese American and culturally Japanese identities. 

But I definitely got culture shock coming back to Idaho after college, especially during my first internship at Minidoka. I remember interning at this rural town where the population was maybe 800, and I looked up at this conference room and the staff was 12 middle-aged white people. And I think that was the first time I’d been a room where I stood out since before college. It was really striking.

Young Mia at obon with her grandmother.

But since then I feel like through work and the camp stuff, it has been a lot more about creating community. With the pilgrimages, the "pop-up Japan towns," and JACL, I’ve been getting involved and meeting the community that I didn’t know was here. Growing up outside of the community and feeling isolated, I've been able to reclaim and create community, and I feel fully part of things now.

Q: Did you ever wish that you grew up in a different area, location, and place? If so, why? 

I think I always wanted to be around more of everything. I think a lot of people can't wait to get out of their hometowns, but growing up in the suburbs ora rural area, I felt my family was really mixed and well-traveled. I grew up going to Japan and Mexico. 

My grandpa was born to migrant laborers and they worked in the fields, and part of the reason why my grandparents were able to connect in Japan was because the farms that my grandpa’s family was working on in the 30’s and 40’s were owned by Japanese Americans in the Central Valley. He grew up with Nisei, interacting with them, joining them after work for ofuro, and they taught him children’s songs in Japanese, so when he went to Japan he had this knowledge. He always had this desire to see the world and travel the world. This was a kid in an immigrant  family in Bakersfield, and he went to Europe and Japan in the military. When he was stationed in Germany he used his leave time to go to the opera and wineries. My grandma, too, grew up in a small fishing village and had this desire to do things differently. She went to fashion school in Tokyo.

Mia's grandmother and grandfather.

I think having this background where people wanted to see more of the world, I always have grown up knowing my family was very open-minded and wanted to see what was out there, which is kind of a different mindset when you’re from a small town where people don’t always have it set as a priority to go see the world and see other ideas. I feel like that was the biggest benefit of growing up in a mixed family, where you already have this open-mindedness because you already have a clash of cultures, values, and ideas. I was already ready to go somewhere new and see the world. I think I am still like that but I am finding ways to feel like I am creating value in where I am now. Like feeling rooted. I came back for graduate school because of Minidoka and I am still trying to find my mission here.

Q: Going into your work at Minidoka, what is the experience like? What do you enjoy? What are you finding more about yourself and in creating community?

Obviously, pilgrimages are the best things ever. That is when Little Tokyo comes to us. We can go a long time without being around people so that is when burnout can set in, so whenever we have a chance to go on a pilgrimage, visit another site, or travel to Seattle, Portland, or Los Angeles and reconnect with people it is really energizing. When I’m able to have a phone call with a survivor or a colleague in the field, that is what fills my bucket to keep going.

Mia onsite at Heart Mountain.

I think the best part of the work is interacting with people that have such deep connections to the site that come and are able to enjoy the fruits of the  labor. We get a lot of people sending us heartfelt letters, emails, and phone calls saying how much our work means to them. That is always the most important thing to me. I have a folder where I save letters. That is how we build our community too. 

It can be hard to strike a balance in this kind of work. Obviously, we are passionate about it, care about it, and are connected to it, but when it is your day in and day out you start to see it as tasks to be done or projects to be managed. But when you see people interacting with it and telling you their story, their journey, what it means to them, or their family connection, those things are so precious. It is hard to strike that balance, especially when you’re dealing with this traumatic history day in and day out, so you have to separate it from yourself. So when you have these moments that humanize it, it just brings it back to the mission and to why we do it. I really feel like it is a privilege to be trusted to do this work.

Q: What are the challenges do you think you are to your location?

Most people think that Idaho is super remote, but I think we are the closest site to a major population center. There are still people, like me, who grow up here and have never learned about the incarceration. But now that the sites are being more publicized in the news, anytime we have a development we have people coming into town and telling us "my uncle helped build it" or people that grew up nearby saying "my parents told us not to talk about it and that it was not important enough to be preserved." It is a mixed bag here. People don’t learn about it. 

But overall, I think there is a positive acceptance of this being a part of the local story too. A lot of our visitors are people who were either descendants or people who are on the road and will tell us “I grew up with a friend or in-law that has this as part of their history that wanted to learn more." It is a mixed bag, but I feel like those seeking out the site are already receptive to the story. I think the biggest challenge is to get the history more widely known in the state. I am in Boise and two hours from the site, and it is kind of surprising to strike a conversation with someone and find out they have a good amount of knowledge about it. It further reinforces my mission of broader education about the site and the history.


Q: Any last closing thoughts?

I think it is important for people to know that there is community here. Just because I didn’t know about it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t here. We’re only 30-40 minutes away from Ontario, Oregon, which during the war was the largest free JA community because it was just outside of the exclusion zone. Because there was such a large population of Japanese Americans there and they knew it was a safe space, many people resettled there and in nearby areas of Idaho that are more rural. There are also communities that were here before the war. The pre-war Japanese community in Idaho is something that I haven’t delved into much but they were here from the 1880s on the railroad and in agriculture all over the state. So a lot of the communities that we have are pre-war and, of course with resettlement, that mix of people who knew someone that could sponsor them so they left camp to go work on a farm where other JAs were. So there is a really robust traditional and multi-generational community here. 

There are still folks who came here both pre-war and post-war. The community is getting smaller because we are losing a lot of our elders, and our local JACL is mostly a few families. But we are here and have been here for 100 years. We have four local JACL chapters across Idaho and on the Oregon border: Boise, Pocatello-Blackfoot, Idaho Falls, and Snake River. 

Boise is really growing and it is becoming the city to move to, so I think we are having more and more people visit or move here that are looking for community. We also have a growing shin-nikkei community here, since we have Micron, HP, and start-ups moving here. So there is more of a business community here, with families coming from Japan. We also have IJA (Idaho Japanese Association), and that is more of the shin-nikkei community but our JACL works together with them. So there are different avenues with IJA, JACL, and Friends of Minidoka for people to get involved in community here.

Q: Tell us more about what you provided for us to download.

I wrote this zine in a creative writing class in 2012, at about the same time I was unpacking my identity for the first time in a lot of the ways I discussed with you. It's fun to look back and see how my feelings about my identity have shifted, and how much of my identity is rooted in my grandparents, who I am very fortunate to still have with me. I have been thinking a lot about how my identity will shift when that isn’t the case. One note - the “cosmic race” as imagined by José Vasconcelos was based on anti-Black and anti-Indigenous ideologies that a mixed/Mestizo race was a transcendent race of the future. There were echoes of this in magazine articles from the early 2000s talking about mixed people of the future that I also highlighted in the zine. Conversations around blood quantum and mixed generations are often heard in the Japanese American community as well. This raises the question of how we can strive to celebrate all people without continuing to erase historically marginalized groups.

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To learn more about the Friends of Minidoka and Mia's work, visit: http://www.minidoka.org/

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Article featured in this issue:
Diaspora
July 25, 2020

With hopes set high, individuals and families of Japanese origin have settled across the globe. Over the past century, this global diaspora has had the unique experience of adopting new behavioral and social norms, all while preserving our Japanese heritage.

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