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Dig at internment camp seeks story

WWII barracks held 265 men of Japanese ancestry

Bits of pottery used in the World War II Japanese internment camp at Kooskia, Idaho, were  found during a recent archaeological dig  at the site.  (Associated Press)
Bits of pottery used in the World War II Japanese internment camp at Kooskia, Idaho, were found during a recent archaeological dig at the site. (Associated Press)
Jennifer K. Bauer Lewiston Tribune

LOWELL, Idaho – In the remote Idaho wilderness flanked by steep canyons and a clear, cold river, historians are digging into one of the gray areas of American history.

Under the campfire rings along the Lochsa River, 30 miles north of Kooskia, is the story of the Kooskia Internment Camp, a work camp that held 265 men of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The barracks and gardens that once housed and fed them are long gone. What remains is U.S. Highway 12, which the internees helped build, although the drivers of passing cars and trucks probably don’t know that.

“Internment isn’t really talked about in Idaho schools. A lot of people around here didn’t know about it. It’s an under-studied aspect of American history,” said Stacey Camp, project investigator for the Kooskia Internment Camp Project and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Idaho.

Using ground-penetrating radar, shovels and other methods, Camp’s team is delving into the past. Their findings will help explain how internees coped in a remote location far from their homes and families.

Some of the items found during the monthlong dig at the site include glass ink bottles, an antique Vicks VapoRub jar, broken crockery and buttons. One of the finds researchers were most excited about on a recent July day were shards of a broken rice bowl with “Made in Japan” printed on the bottom. The white bowl is painted with blue plants and animals.

“I think this is a bamboo leaf,” said Doug Ross, a teacher at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Canada, pointing to a leaf.

The design may tell a story from Japanese mythology, said Ross, who researches the material culture of Japanese immigrants. It could even lead to a specific family. Back in the lab, students will trace the bowl to its origins.

The dig is funded in part by the Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program, established by Congress to help preserve and interpret WWII camps.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, all persons of Japanese ancestry were removed from the Pacific Coast – the western half of Washington and Oregon, all of California and Alaska, and the southern half of Arizona. The men at the Kooskia camp were all first-generation immigrants who volunteered to come here from other camps to work for pay.

One of Camp’s primary goals is to communicate findings to the public. She’s designed the project as an “open archaeological site” and will lead public tours today. She updates a weekly blog on the project, which will continue after the research moves from the field to the lab. Depending on funding, she would like this to be a multiyear project.

One of the challenges will be sorting through layers of history. The site of the internment camp was once a prison work camp, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp and traditional grounds of the Nez Perce Indians.

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