TWIN FALLS — Diana Morita Cole doesn’t remember living at the Minidoka Relocation Center but she understands the power in telling her family’s story.
In a darkened room, Cole told an audience about the night her grandfather destroyed all remnants of his homeland to appear less suspicious to local authorities. He burned his granddaughters’ Daruma dolls, Hyakunishi cards, calligraphy and kites. What were once beloved items had now become symbols of disgrace and shame for him, Cole said.
But his actions were in vain. The family was eventually removed from their home in Mount Hood, Ore., and interned at Tule Lake in California.
They were then transferred to the Minidoka Relocation Center near Eden where Cole was born in 1944.
Cole shared her family’s story Friday at the 15th annual Minidoka Pilgrimage at the College of Southern Idaho. She was one of several presenters at the CSI Fine Arts Center who shared personal and family stories, history and information. Organizers said the annual pilgrimage drew about 320 attendees to the four-day event that continues Saturday and Sunday at the Minidoka National Historic Site.
The Minidoka Relocation Center, also known as Hunt Camp, was one of 10 camps in the U.S. It operated from 1942 until November 1945. In 1942, nearly 13,000 people of Japanese-ancestry were removed from their homes in the Pacific Northwest and sent to the Minidoka camp. More than 127,000 were imprisoned during World War II.
In 2015, Cole wrote a book called “Sideways: Memoir of a Misfit.” She said the book is about “coming to terms with my identify as a member of a despised group.”
It includes family stories of life at Minidoka and her own experiences growing up in Chicago.
“I have no recollections,” Cole said. “It’s only what my family told me.”
This is the second year Cole has attended the pilgrimage. The first time she visited the site, she said, she didn’t feel a connection until she talked to other former internees.
“It was weird,” Cole said. “I expected to feel something. It didn’t resonate with me, but when I started hearing the stories of what the camp invoked for others, I felt a sense of community.”
She now lives in British Columbia, Canada, and sits on the steering committee of the Langham Japanese Canadian Museum and is a member of the Nelson Storytelling Guild.
Cole said she felt a need to share her family’s story to ensure the history and lessons of internment camps are not forgotten, especially in today’s political climate.
“It’s a story that’s bigger than us,” Cole said. “Especially now, so many people are in need of homes and acceptance. We need to have people develop a great empathy for ‘the other.’ We want to curtail that impetus to marginalize people and accuse them of things they haven’t done.”
The stories have also helped her own family heal in a way.
“It gives my family a great sense of value,” Cole said. “They feel like they were nobodies. They weren’t prosperous in the Hood River, but people love the stories I tell them. It resonates with many people.”
Like Cole, Carly Perera also ensures the stories of her family are not lost.
This year is the first time Perera, who is from San Francisco, attended the pilgrimage. Last year, Perera started the Instagram account @tommykm that documents her grandmother’s life at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming. Her grandmother, Tomiko Miyahara, died in 2009 and the account features family photos before WWII and Miyahara’s life inside the camp.
Before the project, Perera said she and other family members knew very little of her grandmother’s experiences inside the internment camp. The project initially started out as a digital photo album for her family.
“We caught a glimpse of a person we didn’t know very much about,” she said.
Perera doesn’t know how her grandmother got the camera into the camp since they were not allowed. Perera estimated she has about six months of photos and letters left to post on the account. The photos document Miyahara’s life from 1938 to 1945 and has 239 followers.
After she posts all her grandmother’s photos, Perera is thinking about continuing the project with her own story.
“I was very close to my grandma, and this made me understand her in a different way,” Perera said. “It gave me a better sense of self and my history in this country.”
Cousins Miya Namba, 18, and Allison Namba, 16, feel a sense of purpose to make sure their generation doesn’t forget.
“They speak briefly about it in history class but I don’t think people realize an entire generation of people had their constitutional rights taken away from them,” Allison said.
Their grandmother May Namba was incarcerated at Minidoka. This is the fifth year Miya has attend the Pilgrimage and the fourth time for Allison.
Three years ago, 22 members of the Namba family attend the Minidoka Pilgrimage. It was the last time May, now 95, attended the gathering.
Growing up, the cousins said, their grandmother often spoke about her experiences at local schools, but rarely with them.
“She shares more stories here than back home,” Miya said.
“I think she felt it was important but didn’t know the right time at home,” Allison added.
Allison said her father didn’t know about his mother’s experiences until he went to college. He was learning about internment camps in a history class and asked her about it.
But the cousins said they are happy to see more people their age attending the pilgrimage.
“Just being here and seeing more youth here in recent years — it’s a telltale sign they want to continue the legacy and bring back more culture,” Allison said.