United Tribes News

Planning conference held at United Tribes
By Martha Nakagawa, Gardena, CA
8 July 2010

BISMARCK (UTN) - United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) hosted the Fort Lincoln Planning Conference May 30 to June 2 on the college campus in Bismarck. Sixty people from 15 states began planning for a memorial to those who became victims of war hysteria and the climate of fear during World War II.

Former internee Bill Nishimura explains the meaning of Japanese writing etched into the brick wall of a dormitory building at United Tribes Technical College. A campus tour May 31 inspired participants in the Fort Lincoln Planning Conference, who began the planning for a memorial to those confined at the internment camp during World War II. United Tribes News photo Dennis J. Neumann

      UTTC is one of the nation’s leading tribal colleges; its campus is the former site of Fort Lincoln Internment Camp, where people of Japanese and German descent (and some from eastern Europe countries) were imprisoned 65 years ago.

      The conference was funded largely by a grant from the National Park Service through its Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program. It focused on Fort Lincoln’s role as a Department of Justice camp and the government’s Alien Enemy Control Program.

      Represented at the conference were former Fort Lincoln internees, Japanese and German descendants of internees, Japanese and German Latin Americans, members of tribes located in North Dakota, and local citizens.

Between 1941 and 1946 the Fort Lincoln DOJ Internment Camp was used to detain approximately 3,850 men of German and Japanese ancestry, and a small number of Italians, Romanians and others from European countries.


      Over the Memorial Day holiday, those attending learned that the Fort Lincoln internment story has multi-cultural dimensions. When the former military post became surplus government property in the late 1960s, it was transformed by the tribes of North Dakota into a training and educational facility for American Indian families. The fort’s past is now interwoven with the history of tribal America.

       “I come from the tribe of people called the Hunkpapa Lakota,” said David M. Gipp, UTTC president, in a greeting to conference participants. “There is a fellow by the name of Sitting Bull. He would fit very well with the renunciants because he refused to accept America, and said, ‘if I’m going to accept America, it will be on my terms and conditions.’ It is the telling of that story that is so critical. If we are not allowed to tell the story, then we do not live in a democracy.”

      Barbara Takei with the Tule Lake Committee, expressed her amazement over UTTC’s welcoming atmosphere.

      “It took a group that had suffered — the Native Americans, who had suffered for generations and centuries and endured so much pain at the hands of the U.S. government — it was this group that recognized the pain suffered by the German Americans, Italian Americans and Japanese Americans,” she said. “This is the group that acknowledged and honored the stories of the renunciants, a group of people who has been written out of Japanese American history. It’s so extraordinary that it is the Native Americans who are the ones that have the understanding, compassion and generosity to help us tell this story.”

David M. Gipp, United Tribes Technical College President

      Gipp and the United Tribe staff have long welcomed visitors associated with the fort’s internment period. In 2003 the college hosted the opening of “Snow Country Prison: Interned in North Dakota,” an exhibit dedicated to the memory of former internees.

      The college coordinated the current NPS grant and it supports the idea of creating a memorial on campus.

      “Once the students and staff understand the story [about internment], they automatically identify with it because tribal people have this parallel experience,” said Dennis Neumann, UTTC’s public information director.

      Those who planned the conference were: John Christgau, author of “Enemies: World War II Alien Internment”; Karen Ebel, daughter of Max Ebel, former Fort Lincoln internee; Satsuki Ina, daughter of Itaru Ina, former Fort Lincoln internee; Ursula Vogt Potter, daughter of Karl Vogt, former Fort Lincoln internee; Grace Shimizu, director of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project; Heidi Gurcke Donald, author of “We Were Not The Enemy: Remembering the U. S. Latin-American Civilian Internment Program of World War II”; Wes Long Feather, UTTC chief of staff; and Neumann.

The label “Snow Country Prison,” applied by Itaru Ina in 1945, described the climate of confinement at Fort Lincoln. Inside fences topped with barbed wire and fortified with guard towers, Germans felt Gitterkrankheit, “fence sickness.”


      Two different Nikkei groups were confined at Fort Lincoln. The first were Issei (first generation U. S. immigrants) rounded up by the FBI shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The second were Japanese Americans, who had renounced their United States citizenship.

      Satsuki Ina coordinated the Nikkei group that attended the conference. As special guests, the former internees found it comfortable to share their experiences.

      Former Tule Lake renunciants Junichi Yamamoto, 89; Arthur Ogami, 88; and Hitoshi “Hank” Naito, 84, had all been at Fort Lincoln in 1945 and transported to Japan on the USS Gordon in December 1945.

      Yamamoto, who never reclaimed his U.S. citizenship and travels with a Japanese passport, had not returned to Bismarck since 1945. He felt he received better treatment at the DOJ camp than at the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps.

      “In the WRA camps, you’re an American but they treat you like a Japanese,” said Yamamoto. “That’s why you get mad. But here (Fort Lincoln), we became Japanese and they treated you like a Japanese.”

      Yamamoto was never ashamed about his past but not everyone shared his view. He talked about seeing a fellow internee at a community event.

Junichi Yamamoto

      “I went over to him and I said, ‘Hey, remember me? We were in Bismarck together,’” recalled Yamamoto. “He says, ‘Oh, don’t say that.’ He was ashamed to mention that, I think, so he took me into a back room.

      “All these years, I never thought that way. I don’t brag about being here, but I never felt ashamed about being here. I thought I did the right thing, but some people, I guess, feel kind of ashamed that they were here.”

      Yamamoto, whose family farmed in Salinas, CA before the war, had been imprisoned at the Salinas Assembly Center, Colorado River’s (Poston) Camp 2 and Tule Lake. Yamamoto had bitter memories of Poston where his father passed away while awaiting travel permission to visit his regular physician in San Francisco.

      “Poston was hell,” said Yamamoto.

Kimi and Arthur Ogami

      In contrast, he fondly recalled the German internees’ welcoming party at Fort Lincoln.

      “We were pleasantly surprised when the welcoming speech was made in Japanese,” said Yamamoto. “So we quickly searched for someone in our group that spoke German. We were fortunate to find one young man that made our appreciation speech in German.”

      Yamamoto also placed first in a swim meet between the Japanese and Germans. Although he was born in landlocked Salinas, the Kibei learned to swim in Hiroshima.

      Ogami, who had not seen Yamamoto in 65 years, remembered Yamamoto’s swimming expertise.

      “When I saw his face, I imagined him at a younger age, and I distinctly remembered him demonstrating how when a drowning person panics, they grab you, and he showed us how to flip them on their back,” said Ogami.

Hitoshi “Hank” Naito found the barracks room where he lived at Fort Lincoln 65 years ago, now an office in the United Tribes Nursing Program.

      Like Yamamoto, this was Ogami’s first time back to Bismarck since 1945. He choked up as he shared that coming to the UTTC campus felt “like coming back home.”

      “I had renounced my citizenship to keep the family intact,” said Ogami. “And when I renounced, I left the United States in 1945 with the idea that I would never return.”

      The Ogami family had been incarcerated at Manzanar but were transferred to Tule Lake after Ogami’s father applied through the Spanish embassy to have the family used in a civilian exchange between Japan and the U.S. As a neutral country, Spain served to communicate between the two warring countries.

      Ogami had never been to Japan, but once he renounced, he threw himself into learning the Japanese language at Tule Lake and Fort Lincoln. His father was sent to the DOJ camp in Santa Fe, N.M., while his mother and younger sister remained imprisoned at Tule Lake.

Rosalyn Tonai, Executive Director of the National Japanese American Historical Society, Inc., offers ideas during group discussion.

      At Bismarck, the FBI questioned Ogami one last time before he was shipped to Japan.

      “They tried to influence the young ones that had petitioned to go to Japan to change their minds,” said Ogami. “But there was no promise of having our American citizenship reinstated.”

      For Naito, this was his second visit to Bismarck since 1945. He had attended the 2003 event. But unlike then, he was more open about his incarceration at Heart Mountain, Tule Lake and Fort Lincoln. He described this Bismarck meeting as “more productive.”

      Takashi Tsujita, another former Fort Lincoln internee, did not ship out to Japan. He was confined at the Turlock Assembly Center, Gila River WRA camp, Tule Lake Segregation Center, and DOJ camps at Fort Lincoln, Santa Fe, and Crystal City, Texas.

      Tsujita had difficulty recalling his time at Fort Lincoln.

Dr. Satsuki Ina was the conference lead facilitator.

      “I’m trying to fill a gap, a blank,” he said. “You know, after the war, you have to make a living. You can’t just sit still and be bitter about it. You got to forget and go on.”

      Tsujita thought he recognized the brick buildings but couldn’t be sure which one he was held in.

      “I remember I went to Japanese school,” he said. “I had interaction with the Germans when they built an ice rink, but I don’t remember who I borrowed the skates from.”

      Bill Nishimura, 90, was not imprisoned at Fort Lincoln but at Santa Fe. Unlike at Bismarck, where almost all of the wartime buildings still stand, Nishimura said the only indication there had been a Santa Fe DOJ camp is a plaque.

At left, Kimberly Contag and Grace Shimizu listen to author Heidi Gurcke Donald.

      In contrast to the welcoming atmosphere at UTTC, Nishimura said placing even a plaque at the Santa Fe camp caused a national furor. Many survivors of the Bataan Death March lived in Santa Fe and objected to what they mistook as honoring a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

      “The atmosphere at Santa Fe is different,” said Nishimura. “It isn’t as welcoming as at Bismarck, so creating a monument that would represent all the Department of Justice camps is most important at Bismarck.”


      If there is any recognition at all by the public about World War II internment, it is often characterized by a low level of awareness about the confinement of those with German heritage, and practically none for those of Latin American ethnicity.

      Attending the conference in Bismarck was Kimberly Contag, who had several family members forcibly taken from Ecuador and sent to Nazi Germany in a prisoner of war exchange between the U.S. and Germany.

Attorney Karen Ebel was the conference lead planner.

      Some of Contag’s family were transported to the Crystal City camp, while others, like her father, his three brothers and grandfather, were sent directly to Europe.

      After the war, Contag’s grandfather was able to locate three of his four children, and they walked from Berlin to Paris where they were placed in a political refugee camp.

      “Can you imagine how it must’ve been for these children, who grew up in the Andes Mountains and were suddenly taken out of Ecuador,” said Contag. “They had been brought up in a very different society, in a very different way, and they experienced some extraordinary things for reasons that really were somebody else’s politics.”

      Contag explained that justice is not a universal concept.

       “The Ecuadorian notion of justice doesn’t exist,” said Contag. “Things happen because people with money and power make choices for you. In this country, we have the feeling that we have rights as citizens. But in Ecuador, they didn’t grow up with that sense of justice and retribution.”

Studying a document, from left, Elizabeth “Suzy” Lechner Kvammen, Sigrid Taye, Anita Levy, and Lori Lechner Johnston.

      The Lechner family had also been involved in a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Germany, but their case included two American-born children.

      Karl Lechner, a German immigrant living in the U.S., had been picked up and held at Ellis Island, Chicago and Fort Lincoln, before being reunited with his family at Crystal City. From there, the family was placed on the Gripsholm exchange ship.

      Sisters Elizabeth “Suzy” Lechner Kvammen and Lori Lechner Johnston, who attended the conference, were mere toddlers when they arrived in war torn Germany with nothing but the clothes on their back. All their luggage had been stolen during the trek.

      After the war, their father decided to remain in Germany, while their mother, Eleanor Schiller Lechner, returned to the U.S. with her two American-born children.

Randy Houser listens to author John Christgau.

      Elizabeth, then age six, spoke no German when she arrived in Germany. And when her family returned to the U.S. three years later, she had forgotten her English. It was, she described, “a very difficult and confusing time.”

      Another conference participant, Randy Houser of Charleston, SC, grew up knowing bits and pieces of how his grandfather had been picked up and held at various camps including Fort Lincoln.

      “In my family, we were never supposed to talk about this,” said Houser. “I was told about it when I was nine-years-old, after my grandfather had died, and then, I was told never to talk about it.”

      In the 1990s, Houser decided to dig into his family history. “I lit a fire under myself and chased the story,” said Houser. “And I did it for my mom and for my own family.”

      Houser used copies of his grandfather’s Fort Lincoln sketches to identify buildings and camp facilities on a walking tour at UTTC.

Ursula Potter, conference planner

      John A. Schmitz, a former Ellis Island and Crystal City internee, described his father’s FBI hearing as a “kangaroo court.” When his father was taken away from their home in the Bronx, his mother took her three young children and went to the White House. She never saw President Roosevelt but was told to voluntarily incarcerate herself and her children with her husband. Since she had no way of supporting herself, she complied.

      In reading his father’s documents, Schmitz said his father had been asked whether he’d fight against Germany. “My father said, ‘I’d fight against Japan, but they said, ‘No, no, that’s not the question,’” said Schmitz.

      Schmitz’s son, John E. Schmitz, finished a doctoral dissertation on the German, Italian and Japanese alien experience during World War II.

      Heidi Gurcke Donald documented the story of her family’s forced relocation from Costa Rica in the book “We Were Not The Enemy: Remembering the U. S. Latin-American Civilian Internment Program of World War II.”

John A. Schmitz

      “One of the things I found out recently in my search through the National Archives is that supposedly 4,058 Latin Americans of German ethnicities were brought here to the States for internment,” said Donald. “I also found out there were over 3,200 of those same internees who were sent to Germany from a list that said ‘Brought Via the United States to Germany.’ So basically, my family was allowed to stay in the United States, which was part of a small number. There were only about 880 Latin Americans of German ethnicity who were allowed to stay in the States. The other thing I found is that at least another 2,000 Germans were sent directly from Latin American ports to Germany. So they never even got to the United States.”

      Another who has written about her family’s experience, in the book, “The Misplaced American,” is Ursula Vogt Potter. Her father, Karl Vogt, was arrested on the family farm near Spokane, WA on Dec. 9, 1941 and shipped off to Fort Lincoln. When Potter’s teary-eyed mother asked the FBI agents why they were arresting her husband, she was told, “it’s none of your business.”

John Christgau

      After her father’s arrest, the government froze the family bank account and required her mother to undergo FBI interrogations at least once a week, leading to local community ostracism.

      “We lived a life of shame,” said Potter. “Not because we did something to be ashamed of, but because we were made to feel that we weren’t citizens of the United States.”

      Anita Levy, a former Seagoville internee, said at the conference: “In a sense, this conference closed a chapter in my life of Seagoville and my remembrance of it. But it also opened up a very big, new chapter of hope that this project will evolve into a huge, educational opportunity.”


      Dr. Harriett Skye, (Standing Rock Lakota) UTTC’s vice president of Intertribal Programs, noted the similarities between Native American and Nikkei incarceration experiences.

      “The encompassing issue was that loyalty was questioned,” said Skye. “Our loyalty was questioned as Native people, even though we had been here. Who we were disloyal to is a good question.”

      Denise Lajimodiere (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), and assistant professor at North Dakota State University, became interested in the Nikkei camp experience after discovering how many WRA and DOJ camps had connections with existing tribal territories.

Dr. Harriett Skye of United Tribes

      “My fascination was with Poston, but now I’m hearing connections between the Tule Lake Segregation Center and Klamath Modoc people,” said Lajimodiere. “My daughter’s father is Klamath Modoc so I’m anxious to see if I can make contact with people who know about any interaction between the Japanese and Native people at the Tule Lake area.”

      An elder from the Standing Rock Tribe, Wilbur “Banny” Pleets, shared about his tribal history, saying, “We know about incarceration…All we want is what is right and just.”

      Briefly attending the conference was Wizipan Garriott (Rosebud Lakota), a policy advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U. S. Department of Interior.

      “To see individual Japanese American internees or their descendants and German American descendants of internees on a tribal college is such a great happenstance,” said Garriott. “To be in a place that was probably one of death and suffering and now is a place of learning, life and rebirth is amazing. And you being here completes that circle.”

Wilbur “Banny” Pleets of the Standing Rock Tribe


      Most of the conference work involved group discussions and dialogue about attributes of a fitting memorial. The idea of education repeatedly surfaced. Concrete suggestions included creating a library or archival repository for research purposes, enhanced by interactive exhibits for the youth.

      Another repeated theme was creation of a museum/interpretive center to preserve artifacts, photographs, documents and even wartime graffiti, some of which can still be found on UTTC buildings. Many hope that the college will designate a former Fort Lincoln building for this purpose.

      The idea of transportation also figured strongly.

      “If you think about this whole process, it was necessary to transport people from all kinds of places on an international scale. It’s important to include geography to convey the scale of this situation,” said Stephen Fox, author of the book “Homeland Insecurity: Aliens, Citizens, and the Challenge to American Civil Liberties in World War II.”

Denise Lajimodiere speaks about tribal traditions following a ceremony conducted for the former internees, draped in star quilts, and others at the conference.

      Fox’s group suggested plaques at various train stations and ports, describing the history of the people who had passed through them.

      The concept of layering also resonated with attendees. Dr. Testuden Kashima, University of Washington professor, envisioned layers of symbols to convey the complexity of the DOJ and Alien Enemy Control Program.

      Other symbols to consider were a collage of faces; a garden; water sculptures; friendship knot; ID tags; medicine wheel; and the usage of words as symbols to instill fear.

      Specific images associated with Fort Lincoln included the former front entrance arch (still preserved on the campus), guard tower, barbed wire and existing trees.

      “If these trees could talk,” said Skye, noting that some of them date to the internment period.


      Plans for the conference had been in the works for close to a year. The groups that provided matching funds were United Tribes Technical College, Hesono O Productions, German American Internee Coalition, National Japanese American Historical Society, Tule Lake Committee, and the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project. Each planning committee member expressed optimism about the results.

      “This has gone beyond my expectations in terms of how the different groups worked together and how much the experiences overlap,” said Ina, a family therapist from Sacramento, CA and filmmaker who had also helped organize the 2003 “Snow Country Prison” exhibit. “Before this, I don’t think I had a complete picture of what was possible here, but it just kind of organically emerged in ways that were gratifying.

      “This conference changed my way of thinking about the Japanese American experience too, because I think before, I felt like we were more like parallel and that we would tell our different stories. In my mind, there were images of facets, rather than stories woven together. But we’ve found enough common themes that it’ll be a whole different kind of image. So I’m very excited over what we got.”

      Karen Ebel, an attorney from New London, NH, whose late father, Max Ebel, participated in the 2003 program, said, “I’m just blown away by this. It was just so great to have such a cohesive group. It was such a dark period of our history, but it’s hard to feel bad because there’s so much positive energy here. It was the renunciants who kept saying we want some good to come out of this. The energy here is all good and we can achieve not only something to memorialize the history of these people but to give a message for future generations.”

      Ebel has been working for more than 10 years to get Congress to study the wartime treatment of Germans and Italians, similar to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians for the Nikkei community.

      Author John Christgau, Belmont, CA, drew parallels between the World War II camps and what is occurring today. “Since 9/11, the issue is again in the forefront of what we do with others in the country, who we perceive as a threat to our national security,” said Christgau. “We’re making many of the same mistakes we made 70 years ago. So one of the purposes of this conference was to be an educational tool for the government to help refine the system, so that people’s freedom and due process rights aren’t stomped on by a fearful bureaucracy that’s responding to the urgencies of war.”

      Wes Long Feather of United Tribes said the process of different communities working together was “pretty significant” and that he looked forward to “continuing on this project jointly and sharing the stories across cultures.”

      The next step for the planning group will be to form the ideas from the conference into a proposal for the next round of funding in the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program.

Writer Martha Nakagawa has been on staff with Asian Week, Rafu Shimpo and Pacific Citizen; her articles have appeared in the Hawaii Herald, Nikkei West, Hokubei Mainichi and Nichi Bei Times.


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