"Refuge on the Colorado", from The Desert Magazine September 1942


 When it was announced in February that Japanese evacuees from the Pacific coast would be relocated on tribal lands of the Colorado River Indians, there were protests, both from the Indians and from sympathetic white sources. But it was a war measure, and the objections were overruled. Largest of the Japanese relocation communities is on the Colorado River Indian Reservation near Parker, Arizona, where housing for 20,000 evacuees has been erected in the heart of a desert mesquite forest. And if you want to know how this project is working out, here are some of the answers.

Refuge on the Colorado


"I wish you would write an editorial against putting the Japanese on Indian reservations. That is one of the most unforgivable things we have ever done to the Indians. They are defenseless, therefore they are saddled with the Japs."

     This paragraph is from a letter written to me by a friend in Washington several weeks ago.It raises a question which has been in the minds of many Desert Magazine readers since it was announced early this year that all Japanese were to be evacuated from certain coastal areas,and that many of them were to be relocated on Indian lands.
     I did not write the editorial for the reason that the resettlement of Japanese on Indian lands for the duration of the war is part of America's all-out effort. It was not a time to criticize unless there was a constructive end to be gained.
     However, I decided to find out for myself from first hand sources just how this Japanese relocation program is working out There is a three-fold interest involved--the interest of America at war with Japan, the interest of the Indians whose lands are being occupied, and the interest of the Japanese themselves.
     The largest of all the Japanese relocation centers is on the desert--deep in the mesquite jungles of the Colorado River Indian Reservation that lies along the Colorado River below Parker. And that is where I went for information.
     With permits from the War Relocation Authority and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I visited the Colorado River Relocation Center early in July. There I found Americans and Japanese working in close cooperation and doing a job that has many amazing aspects.
      Consider the task of building a city for 20,000 people--the third largest city in Arizona--with all the problems of housing, water, power, sewerage, policing, fire control and transportation, within a period of three months. And keep in mind that the city is located 17 miles from the nearest railroad and more than 300 miles from its wholesale distributing center, in the heat of a desert wilderness where there were neither roads, power nor communication lines, nor any organization to provide these essentials. It was truly a gigantic undertaking.
     The Japanese Center on the Colorado River is named Poston, honoring Charles D. Poston, first territorial delegate and often called the "Father of Arizona." The name Poston really covers three towns. Camp 1 is built to house 10,000 Japanese plus several hundred Anglo- American officials who are directing the project. Camp 2, three miles farther down the valley accommodates 5,000 people, and Camp 3, another three miles south is the same size as Camp 2.
     From Parker I drove over a paved road to Silver City where the Administration and School Buildings of the Colorado River Indian Reservation are located. Beyond this point a well-maintained gravel road extends to the three Poston camps.
      Army engineers laid out the town sites and directed the construction. The building job was done by the Del E. Webb Construction Company under contract. The Army Signal Corps strung the communication lines. The Provost Marshal's Office provided two companies-- less than 500 soldiers--for guard duty. The Indian Service receives the evacuees and operates the relocation centers which popularly are referred to as "camps." The erection of housing and facilities for a community of 20,000 was not a new problem for Army Engineers or for private construction companies. Jobs of no less magnitude were done both in World War I and again in the present emergency. But they were built to house soldiers, adults whose loyalty to the American flag was never in question, and who moved in under long- established rules of order and discipline. They set up camp under veteran officers trained for such an emergency.
     But here was a new problem in human relations: Twenty thousand Japanese, ranging in age from a few days to 80-odd years, the older generation aliens, the younger people Americans--all of them members of a race whose national leaders had been guilty of an atrocious act of treachery against their adopted country. In occupational pursuits they ranged from laborers in the vegetable fields to highly successful merchants. Some of them could not speak English. Others had graduated with honors from American colleges. Some of them had sons serving in the United States Army and Navy. Others formerly had been members of the Japanese military caste--may still be, for that matter. They all came to Poston on a common level.
      It was a mass movement that has no parallel in American history, nor any precedent on which to base a new code of rules.
     As Project Director, to handle this unknown problem, the lndian Service brought in W. Wade Head, agent for the last six years on the Papago Reservation at Sells, Arizona. Head is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a fine record both in and previous to his federal service. He has youth, a cool head, and a fine understanding of human nature. Every hour of every day he has important decisions to make--decisions that never before confronted an Indian Service official.
     As assistants, the Indian Bureau brought specialists from many places--Nell Findley from Honolulu where she has been doing educational work among the Japanese for many years, to direct the Department of Health, Recreation and Education; H. A. Mathieson to assume the huge task of making the colony self-supporting on the thousands of acres of rich silt land that surrounds Poston; Russell Fister to organize and manage the coopera-tively owned and operated Japanese stores and shops to serve 20,000 people; Dr. Leo Schnurr to establish a hospital and direct medical work; Ted Haas, attorney, to help the Japanese set up their own self-government; Norris James, a San Francisco newspaperman to take over as Press Officer and sponsor the publication of a daily newspaper, written and edited by the Japanese in the English language.
     There are a score or more of these departmental directors and assistants, each a specialist in one of the many fields of Community Activity. They are there to lead and organize the Japanese in a self-contained community in which the Japanese themselves will supply the manual effort and fill subordinate positions. They have a versatile army of workers to draw from.
    In the camp are highly skilled Japanese in every trade and business and profession.
    Isamu Noguchi is a noted Japanese sculptor. He came to Poston from New York--came voluntarily. He wanted to help America solve this problem. When I visited his apartment he was working on an exquisite bust in marble. That is his recreation. His project job is landscape planning for the new city on the desert. On the walls at the administration building is a beautifully designed sketch of the Poston of the future with parks, gardens and vine-covered cottages--if there is time and the means to carry out the project. Noguchi drew the plan.
      "Tets" Iwasaki is a graduate of California School of Technology. His diploma hangs on the wall of his one-room apartment at Poston. He is the city's new electrician.
     Shigeru Imamura was a trusted employee of the Imperial Irrigation District in California, largest in the United States. Now he is water- master for the Irrigation Project at Poston.
      Mabel Ota was an Assistant Librarian in Los Angeles. She and a group of helpers have nearly 4,000 books and hundreds of magazines--all donated--classified according to approved library methods on rough board shelves in the long barracks room that has been set aside for the purpose. There are 500 library patrons a day.
     Marvel Maeda, a graduate of San Diego State Teachers College, is secretary to Director Head. She will join the teaching staff when school opens this falI.
     Harvey Tanaka was a paper salesman in Imperial Valley--and he has been assigned to the marketing organization in Poston. And so it goes. There are skilled and willing workers for every job.
     There is a well-equipped hospital at Poston now. But during the first few days, before all the medical supplies arrived, the hospital cases were handled in temporary barracks. When the first appendectomy came in Dr. Schnurr happened to be away on an important mission. It was an emergency case and the American nurses were in a quandary. Could they trust the Japanese surgeons newly attached to the staff with so important a surgical operation--or should they wait for instructions from Dr. Schnurr?
     Drs. Y. Wakatake and Henry Sumida calmly assured the head nurse they could do the operation. Reluctantly, she gave consent. They did not have much with which to work. But they did a job that won the respect of the entire staff, Americans and Japanese alike.
     At the time I visited the settlement there were 9,000 Japanese in Camp 1 and 2,000 in Camp 2. They are still arriving from Assembly Centers all over California--Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Merced, Fresno, Salinas, Imperial Valley,
     Five hundred recruits arrived from San Joaquin Valley one day while I was there. They came by special train from Parker. They were met with a fleet of trucks loaned by the CCC. Arriving at Camp 2 they waited in line for their assignment to quarters. A cot was issued to each one, and a tick to be filled with straw for a mattress. They came with only the personal belongings they could carry with them.
      Quarters consist of long barracks buildings, each 20x100 feet, built of wood, sealed outside with roofing paper and inside with plasterboard. There are three partitions in each building, making four 20x2 5-foot rooms. From five to nine persons occupy a room. The normal is six, but where the family is large they are permitted to remain together. The Japanese form their own housing groups. It is the policy of the Administration to keep regimentation to a minimum.
     Five hundred soldiers are stationed at Poston but their duties scarcely touch the lives of the Japanese. They stand guard at the incoming roads to make sure visitors have proper permits and they patrol certain areas where contractors' materials are stored.
     There is no guard line around the camps as a whole. It would take an Army division to do an effective job of picketing any one of the camps. The Japanese understand they are to remain on the reservation--but the reservation is nearly 50 miles long and 14 miles wide. There really is nothing to keep an internee from running away if he wants to go--that is, nothing except many miles of hot arid desert extending in all directions beyond the forest of mesquite, cottonwood and willows which covers the valley.
     They are not treated as prisoners. Nor do they regard themselves as such. So far, not a single desertion has been recorded. Openly, there is no evidence of hostility. The great majority of those in camp discuss their plight in a philosophic tone: "We are here. It probably is for the best. And so we will accept it as cheerfully as we can.''
     Soon after arrival each Japanese 16 years and older is given an opportunity to enlist in the War Relocation Work Corps.
      After enlistment they are assigned to work groups and paid a monthly wage of $12 for unskilled, $16 for skilled workers and $19 for executive and professional services. The doctors who performed the appendectomy are in the $19 class. Among the Japanese there is some criticism of the wage differentials. Administration officials are discussing the feasibility of a flat rate for all.
     In addition to this pay, which covers a 44-hour week, they receive their food, water, electricity, heat in winter, and it is planned to issue work clothes to certain types of laborers where wear and tear is severe.
      An opportunity has been given all Japanese to sign up for return to Japan if an alien transportation can be arranged. So far 120 members of the camp have asked for repatriation.
      The unit of administration at Poston is the block. In each block there are 14 apartment houses, a dining room, recreation hall, latrine buildings with showers for men and women, laundry and ironing room. Wide parking area surrounds each unit of four blocks, designed as a fire break. Each block has its Japanese Manager who represents it in matters of Community Administration.
      Original Block Managers were appointed by the official staff, but on July 21 the first election was held in Poston Camp 1 at which Managers were elected by secret ballot by the Japanese themselves. The 36 Block Managers now form an Administrative Council with Mayor, Fire Chief, Police Chief--all the functionaries of a normal American city.
     Each day a long caravan of trucks rolls into camp, bringing the many tons of food required for so large a population. Most of diet food supplies are bought through the Army Quarter Master Department in Los Angeles. A cook and helpers are named in each block. As far as possible the Japanese are given what they want to eat, within the limitations of a plain substantial menu. An Anglo-American dietician would be appalled at the amount of starch they consume. Rice of course is the staple, with tea the most popular drink.
     Good cooks are notoriously temperamental, and the Japanese are no exception. Earl Best, Chief Steward, is often called upon to referee the disputes that develop in the mess halls. Sometimes the argument is between the chef and his dishwashers. At other times it is from menus that do not suit all the customers. Bring together a group of American merchants, farmers, auto-mechanics and day laborers and set them down at a table to eat the same family style dinner, and you would have the same problems Best has to deal with in the community mess halls at Poston. The average cost of food for one person is 37 cents a day. Cooks, waiters and flunkeys are all on the camp payroll at $12 or $16 a month, according to rated skill.
     With legal guidance from the Indian Service, the Japanese at Poston are setting up their own self-government. On July 21 the evacuees elected their own Block Leaders to represent them on an all-Japanese City Council. The Japanese girl, blindfolded, is drawing names from a bat to determine the order in which the names of candidates would appear on the official ballot. In the background, center, is Ted Haas, Indian Service Attorney, who arranged the election according to traditional American procedure. At his left, Norris James, Press Representative of the WRA.
     At one corner of the townsite, Frank Kuwahara, head nurseryman, is pampering 55,000 baby guayule plants shipped from Salinas for test plantings in Parker Valley. They are now taking root in hastily built arrowweed ramadas, but as soon as irrigation laterals are completed, will be planted in various types of soil in experimental fields. Guayule is a native of the Chihuahua Desert and no one knows yet just how well it will grow and produce rubber in the bottom lands along the Colorado River.
     Army Engineers found a fine stratum of water at a depth of 118 feet in Parker Valley. Huge tanks were built and Poston is well supplied with domestic water.
      Irrigation water arrived in a newly constructed canal from Parker Diversion Dam July 4. Additional canals are being laid out for the reclamation of as much of Parker Valley's 100,000 acres as time will permit. Time in this case will be determined by the duration of the war. There is no finer soil than the sandy loam of these Colorado River bottom lands. It is the same silt that grows huge crops of cantaloupes, lettuce, alfalfa and flax in Palo Verde and Yuma Valleys.
      The first 40- acre field had been cleared and leveled for planting July 15. Mammoth bulldozers were yanking mesquite trees out by the roots and the leveling crew was following close behind. There is plenty of man-power and skill for a speedy job of reclaiming this valley, but tractors and tools are limited, and progress will depend on the availability of farm machinery. The goal is 20,000 acres the first year.
      First plantings will be vegetables to supply the table needs of the colonists. They are eager for the day to come when they will be growing their own food. Some of the Japanese who arrived in camp the latter part of May already have little patches of radishes growing around their quarters, watered by hand from the domestic faucet.
     Church services are conducted by Japanese and American missionaries of the Christian, Catholic and Buddhist denomination. Japanese may worship where and how they please-- with the exception that Shintoism, the pagan creed of the warrior clan in Japan, is barred.
      Stores and shops, still limited in stocks and crude in fixtures, are being operated by Poston Community Enterprises. Russell Fister, Director of these Commercial Enterprises has two stores and three Cold Drink huts, Beauty Parlors, Barber Shops, and is organizing Shoe, Radio and Watch Repair Shops. From the Japanese population he has drawn managers, clerks, soda jerks and all the help necessary for operation. These commercial projects are on a non-profit basis. That is, the profit goes into the Japanese Community Fund where it is expended for Recreational and Civic Activities. The first store opened May 11 and did a gross business of $11.75 that day. Average receipts now exceed $2,000 a day. Since the total merchandise on the shelves seldom exceeds $5,000 this is a merchant's dream of fast turn-over.
      Dr. Willard Beatty, Director of Education in the Office of Indian Affairs at Washington spent July in camp getting facilities organized to take care of 6,000 school students this fall. Plans include elementary, high school and college.
      The Indian Department hasn't enough teachers to fill so great a need. Japanese girls with normal school training are being enlisted to supplement the Anglo-American instructors. Since most of the Japanese came from California, the State Board of Education in that state is lending books for the class rooms.
      A city of 20,000 without a newspaper would be a strange phenomenon in United States--and Poston has its Press Bulletin. It is just a two-page mimeographed journal, comes out every day except Monday and has a staff organization which is a counterpart of a full-fledged daily paper.
      Director of the Journalistic Activities at Poston is Norris James, affable young man whose title is assistant in charge of Project Reports, but who performs the usual duties of a Press and Intelligence Officer. He has assembled an enthusiastic staff of young Japanese reporters and columnists, and is holding in reserve a crew of linotype operators, printers and pressmen for the day when Poston Community Enterprises may be able to undertake the printing of a newspaper.
What do the Indians of the Colorado River Indian Reservation think about this invasion of their tribal lands? 

      They do not like it!

     There are 900 Indians on the reservation, which extends along the Colorado River from Monument Peak on the north to old La Paz on the south. Most of it is on the Arizona side. The reservation, ceded to the Indians by treaty with United States, includes three tribes. About 60% are Mojaves, 35 % Chemehuevis and 5 % Yumas. Only a small fraction of their rich valley has been reclaimed.
      In 1910 the federal government allotted 10 acres to each man, woman and child, and installed a pumping plant to lift water from the Colorado River for irrigation. This allotment plan would have been fine if no Indian ever died. But after a few deaths and marriages had taken place the Indian Service officials found themselves hopelessly involved in trying to divide fractional tracts between heirs and in-laws. The arithmetic became too complicated even for the white man. And so Congress amended the plan and gave each family 50 acres.
      For the most part, Colorado River Indians are not energetic farmers, and few of them ever developed the full area of their allotments. Some of them were permitted to lease to white tenants, but the greater part of Parker Valley has remained virgin mesquite land, not even accessible by road. The Japanese centers are many miles from the nearest Indian ranchero.
      I do not know what passed between Secretary Ickes, John Collier of the Indian Bureau, and officials of the War Relocation Authority when confronted with the problem of putting a Japanese relocation camp on these reservation lands--but it was a problem that called for a prompt decision. Gen. John L. DeWitt of the West Coast Military Zone had to have a place for Japanese evacuees without delay. The answer was a Memorandum Agreement between the Department of Interior, representing the Indians, and the WRA, which gave the latter authority to move in and take possession of undeveloped portions of Parker Valley. In behalf of the Indians it was stipulated that the WRA must vacate the land with- in six months after the war ended--and that all buildings, improvements, canals and appurtenances of the project should revert to the Indians without cost.
      Under this agreement the Indians appear to have everything to gain and nothing to lose. You and I would figure it that way. It would have been a gift from heaven if the early settlers in Palo Verde or Yuma or Imperial or Salt River Valleys could have moved in on lands already leveled and under irrigation--without cost to themselves.
      But the Indian mind has a somewhat different slant. There is historical basis for his feeling that once the white man moves in and takes possession, his holdings are gone forever.
      And what does he want with all that farmland anyway? He can raise what he needs on his five- acre patch. He would rather have the mesquite forest--the original Valley of the Colorado where his ancestors hunted and fought and lived and were content--in its natural state.
     Right or wrong, he is against this whole deal. The white man and his Japanese proteges are cluttering up his reservation with roads and power lines and telephone poles and buildings. They are chopping down the trees of his ancestral hunting ground. They are bringing smoke and noise, and for all he knows eventually there will come a parade of tourists prying into his humble dwelling and trying to take pictures of everything in sight.

That is the Indian's side of the story.

     It is a 1942 version of the same conflict that has been going on since the first white settlers landed on the New England coast.
      One thing can be said in behalf of the white men who came to this part of the New World. He never at any time enslaved the Indian. And perhaps that is a better fate than would befall him if America and its allies were to lose this war.
      If the lands are returned to the Colorado River Indians, in accordance with Secretary Ickes' agreement, they will have made no greater sacrifice than other Americans are making in this emergency.
      Generally speaking, I found a friendly atmosphere prevailing at Poston. Wade Head and his associates are strongly imbued with the pioneer spirit. They are out on a new frontier reclaiming virgin land. It is a task that has always brought out the best in Americans--courage, patience, energy, enthusiasm. They are putting all these things into their job.
      They are dealing with two very distinct groups of Japanese; The issei, the older generation of men and women born in Japan who have never acquired American citizenship. Most of them are past 50. The larger group is the nisei, the second generation who by reason of their birth in United States are American citizens. A majority of them are under 35. They seldom speak Japanese except when talking with their elders. They are the product of American schools and have adapted themselves to a rather remarkable degree to American ways.
      Around the Headquarters Offices are scores of clattering typewriters, most of them operated by young Japanese--competent, courteous and friendly. There may be resentment in the hearts of some of the elders, but there is little evidence of it among the nisei.
      Pioneering on the desert frontier is never a bed of roses, but the Japanese at Poston are being treated well--and for the most part they are responding with the characteristic politeness of the well-bred Japanese. I can only hope that Americans interned in Japan are faring as well, and that the atmosphere in the American internment camps in Japan is as cordial as at Poston.

     Source: https://archive.org/stream/Desert-Magazine-1942-09/Desert-Magazine-1942-09_djvu.txt