On the night that we returned from the pilgrimage, Laura’s dad invited us over to dinner at the home of one of his old comrades. I found out that those present were among the first pilgrims to ever make the trek to Tule Lake. In their 50’s and 60’s now, these folks had traveled to the campgrounds in the early ’70s. They fought for Ethnic Studies on their college campuses and they fought for the truth at home. Thus, when their parents refused to tell them what life had been like in the Concentration Camps they decided to travel to Tule Lake to find out what had really happened.
On those first trips, they slept on the ground and had guards stationed 24/7 because the locals would harass them. People had never seen so many Asian Americans amassed together before. I was floored to be eating dinner with the forerunners, but as Pam, one of the Old Guard laughingly admitted, “We arrived– and had no idea what we were looking at.”
In more recent decades, it took later pilgrims to Tule Lake years to verify the site where we held this year’s memorial. We looked out upon a field of mountain brush and different forms of flora, a stretch of land that had once held the bones of those that died in Tule Lake. This sacred location had been excavated and with all the bones included was used for gravel. All that exists there now is a memory of what once was.
Tourists passing by could have understandably posed the question, “What are they looking at? What’s the point in returning to a space where bodies no longer remain?” Yet there are probably several ready answers. To me, a return to that site represents a refusal to forget what happened at Tule Lake. Gathering together in the shadow of Castle Rock, this year’s pilgrims honored those that had passed and also gave credence to the memories of those at Tule still with us. Our elders remember that a burial site was there, and we believe them.
Yesterday, I returned to Boston on a red-eye yet I found myself carried through the day on this strange sense of euphoria. I’ve never before experienced such openness and tender care from so many other Japanese Americans and community allies. On the trip, the question shifted from what you did to who you were and who you came from. Basking in stories that helped me fill in pieces to my own narrative buoyed my spirit. I know this is a feeling I’ll return to for days.
Nevertheless, I remember seeing an empty chair in one of our Intergenerational Dialogue Groups and fervently wishing my grandmother’s presence in that chair. I missed my family back in Southern California and my resolve has steeled that on the next pilgrimage in 2014 I will not be the only one of my Yamane clan present.
There is no guarantee that the same elders will return in two years. Most of the Issei who lived through WWII have already passed on and many of those journeying on pilgrimage now are Nisei and Sansei in their 80’s and 90’s. Life does not promise longevity, and it hit me hard on this trip that every missed pilgrimage is a missed story and a missed opportunity to fill in the shadows of my own history.
To which I say– there is too much at stake for us– the Yonsei, Gosei, and Rokusei– to be the generations to drop the torch. We would forever eviscerate legacies that help us to remember what was and to then recognize new forms of systemic oppression reincarnate today. On the bus ride home, elder after elder expressed that one of their deepest joys in coming on the pilgrimage had been the abundance of youth. They spoke to how our interest in their stories brought tears to their eyes, and that our presence gave them energy. In those moments, I could feel my own eyes welling up, full of love and tenderness for these aging bodies, these strong and resilient spirits. These are the people that I come from. I can only hope that in my later years, I’ll be able to return on this pilgrimage with our next generation and do justice in reconjuring these stories, these lives, this experience. I want to be able to explain– what we’re looking at.