Thursday, November 25, 2010

In Contrast - Thankful

About two weeks ago I figured out something really important about one of the characters in my novel: she had been interned in the Funter Bay Aluet internment camp.  I knew that figuring this out was important for both her and me.

Old cannery building at Funter Bay.  Taken by Marjorie Menzi, 2004.
Of course, the problem was, I knew very little about these interment camps.  I knew the basics, that they existed and that almost a thousand Aleuts were removed from their homes by the US government.  Why was this done?  Who went there?  What were the camps like?  How long were the "prisoners" held?  I had no idea.  And so I embarked on my very first fiction related research project.

The building I work in also houses the Alaska State Library and the state library's historical collections.  So on my lunches I became a regular visitor.  Did you know that if you're an Alaska resident you can make 10 free copies a day and receive three high quality digital scans of photographs a year?

Adak - Photo from
But there wasn't much.  The biggest thing I found was an original report typed up by one of the main organizers of the camps in which he described the conditions of the camp from the point of view of a government employee.

One thing he said, really hit home:  "However, at WardCove camp being located among the tall spruce and hemlock trees with 'no air' to which they were accustomed at home with only tall grass and continuous breezes and winds, the Aleuts did express a sense of oppression and suffocation."

Reading this line during my second research lunch, I could feel things clicking.  Imagining the forest of Southeast Alaska, forests that I find comforting in the way they envelope a person, to imagine coming from a land of endless expanse and openness to this?  Yes.  That could be horrible.  Especially if you'd never been in a landscape like ours.

Then this morning I found this document in the National Archives:

That first line: "We the people of this place wants a better place than this to live.  This place is no place for a living creature."

This is a petition by the Aleut women interned in the Funter Bay Evacuation Camp.

When these women returned to their homes they found their buildings looted, some in ruins, and their churches in shambles.  Those from Atka?  Their village was burned to the ground so that the Japanese couldn't use it.

And here I am, sitting in my lovely home, drinking a lovely cup of coffee with irish cream on Thanksgiving Day trying to envision the lives of these women who had to drink impure water and watch all of their loved ones fall sick and then return to a home that was no longer home.  

The contrast is almost more powerful than I can handle.

I am feeling very fortunate and thankful today.

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  1. Agrippina Hanson. Interesting.

    The vast majority of these women seem to have Russian-sounding surnames. Is this possibly the reason for their internment? I don't know much about Aleuts, but is this common?

  2. Nope. As far as I understand the internment was timing and location based. Aleuts and Russians have a very interesting linkage in that Alaska was initially divided up between different churches and it just so happened that Russian Orthodox got the Aleutians. The Metropolitan (basically the pope) of the Orthodox church was actually the bishop in Alaska for a while. The really interesting relationship between the Russians and the Aleuts was that the Russians helped the Aleuts come up with a written version of their language and translated the bible into Aleut and even helped start Aleut newspapers. It's the only native language in Alaska that developed a written form during a period when speakers were actually raised in the language.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you! I'm sure it's extra happy with family in town.

  3. This is very moving. I'm always humbled by these reminders that our country is also capable of treating groups of its citizens as though they are "real" Americans. I recently read Yellin's book "Our Mother's War". She uses first person accounts to discuss the experience of American women in World War 2 -- check out the chapter on the Japanese American internment camps. --Bet

  4. I love Funter Bay. However, I would not want to be forced there indefinitely. It is eery when you walk around the graves there. Anyway, have you read And She Was by Cindy Dyson. Maybe I already made you read it? If you haven't, I think I have a copy you can come down and get if you are interested!