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Remembering the Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration Camps: An Interview with Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker

Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker was three years old in 1942 when the American government sent her and her family to Amache, a Japanese American incarceration camp in southern Colorado. After leaving the incarceration camp in 1945, Tinker and her family moved to Denver and later settled down in Los Angeles. Tinker graduated from UCLA with a B.A. and M.A. in Sociology. After college, she taught high school biology and worked as a guidance counselor in Fresno. Over the last few decades, Tinker has begun to explore her past at Amache by serving as a volunteer for the Amache Research Project with Dr. Bonnie Clark, a professor of archaeology at the University of Denver. Every other summer, the Amache Research Project recruits students and volunteers to travel to Amache and study the archaeology of the site. Tinker also serves as an Advisory Council Member for the Amache Alliance. Her work to preserve the legacy of Amache has been featured in publications such as StoryCorps and The Washington Post.

Taleen Sample: You’ve dedicated the last 20 years of your life to preserving the legacy of the Amache Japanese American internment camp. What is your personal connection to Amache? 

Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker: My name is Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker. I’m a third-generation Japanese American. That means I am in the Sansei generation. I was three years old when my parents, extended family, and I were moved to Amache, one of the 10 Japanese American relocation camps—euphemistically called “relocation camps.” I didn’t really connect myself to the camps until I was much older. In my late 70s, I became involved with Amache. I would like to point out that there are several different terms that refer to these “internment camps.” Only recently have I, and other people, adopted the term “incarceration camp.” For a while, I think we wanted to [avoid] offend[ing] anybody by [not] saying “incarceration,” since some people might have felt that [term] was too strong. However, there were other people who felt that they should be called “concentration camps.” I just cannot accept that. The term “concentration” evokes images of the Jews in World War II, where over 6 million people were exterminated because of their ethnicity and religion. So, I don’t go that far. I do now call them “incarceration camps” because they were prisons and we were prisoners. We were guarded. We were behind barbed wire. Guards were directing their rifles inward, not protecting us as some people claimed. 

TS: I’d love for you to describe your work with Dr. Clark and the Amache field school at the University of Denver. How do you contribute to that project? What inspired you to begin working with them? 

CT: For a while, I didn’t really focus on my life in camp. We said, “Okay, camp is in the past. You go forward now.” There’s that concept in Japanese of “shikata ga nai,” meaning, “it is what it is.” I didn’t think about Amache until 2009 when I met Dr. Clark [a professor of archaeology at the University of Denver] at a reunion in Las Vegas for Amacheans. She was conducting workshops and interviewing people about their histories. In one of the workshops I attended, she was talking about her new research and her need for volunteers. I raised my hand and said, “I’d like to be a volunteer.” The following year a friend of mine and I went out to Granada—the town near Amache. The first time I stood in my own barrack was captivating. That barrack was where my life began.

In 2012, I decided to go again. That was the year we found some gardens in front of my own block. Dr. Clark found these rock formations in front of the entrance to our apartments. I went in 2014, 2016, and 2018. 2018 was amazing. After Amache closed, Granada purchased an old barrack for storage. It was located in the town’s park until 2017. In 2018, it was moved back to its original site and our team from the University of Denver excavated around it. As I was walking away from the barrack one day, I happened to be looking at my phone. A picture of my report card came up—which I had found at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It said, “This is your report card for preschool in Block 11F.” Guess what? The barrack we had moved back to its site was Block 11F. There I was, working on a building that was my preschool. Can you imagine that? That’s the kind of thing that keeps me coming back. 

TS: What has been one of your most rewarding experiences while working with Dr. Clark and the University of Denver at the Amache field school? 

CT: One of the most exciting experiences I had was when Dr. Clark took me to my old apartment. When I first volunteered in 2010, I had no idea where my barrack was. She said, “Okay, Carlene, this is it.” At the time, I was being interviewed by some TV station in Denver. They’re following me around with a microphone and I’m standing there. There’s nothing left but the cement perimeters of the foundations of our barracks. There’s nothing except grass and sand. I stood there for several minutes and then all of a sudden, just standing there, I remembered where my parents’ cots were. I remembered where we slept. I remembered where they hung an army blanket across a rope to divide the space into a bedroom and living room. I remembered where the single light bulb hung. I left in 1945. Some 70 years later, I could still remember everything. 

That concept of the power of a place is so intense. I asked one of our crew chiefs, “How did that happen? I had no idea that I had these memories.” She said, “Your memories are deep within your mind. It’s like an onion with all its layers. As you peel each layer back, back, back, you finally reach the core of your memories.” There they were, unrecognizable for so many years, but not lost. It was an extremely emotional time.

TS: Speaking of memories, I know you mentioned that you were only 3-years-old when you were sent to Amache, but could you tell me about what life was like? Do you have any memories to share or stories that your family has told you? 

CT: I have only snatches of memories, if you want to call them memories at all. Most of my visions of Amache are based on stories that people have told me or anything that I have learned through my recent activities as a volunteer with the Amache field school. That is not to deny that I actually did have some childhood memories. 

First of all, my dad was a very solicitous and caring person. Amache was built on the edge of The Dust Bowl and we endured frequent sandstorms. Since we had to walk a long distance to a mess hall, my dad would put me on his shoulders, cover my face with a scarf so I wouldn’t be pelted by the sand, and walk me over. We’d stand for who knows how long to get our food. That’s one very vivid, very poignant memory that I have. 

Another one I can visualize right now. It was a very sunny day. I can see the army trucks driving along the roads. There’s snow on the side piled high. I looked down in a trench and there I saw a dead tortoise. My goodness—that was sad. That was really sad. At three-years-old, I didn’t understand what death meant or what the little tortoise had gone through.

Also, we discovered evidence of Japanese bathtubs through excavation. They’re called ofuro tubs. I remember a very starry moonlit night when I got up onto a wooden platform with my mom and two aunts. We approached the big heated tub of water with coal underneath keeping it warm. We were waiting, gradually immersing ourselves in this hot water. I can remember sitting behind my mom. That was a bonding experience for my mom and her sisters and myself.

TS: After your family left Amache in 1945, what was your readjustment process like?

CT: We moved to Denver with my uncle and his family, who had been in the Poston incarceration camp. My uncle got a job in a market. My dad got a job with that same grocery store. The first time I experienced racial discrimination was in Denver. In camp, we were all alike. Nobody was pelting us with rocks. In Denver, I lived in an area where there were no Japanese Americans like us. I would go to school across the street, and kids would pick up rocks and throw them at me.

We later moved back to California when I was in second grade. I was out of sync with the California schools. They asked my mother to either accelerate me or leave me in the grade I was in. She agreed to let me go ahead, so I skipped a grade. However, our return to California was not glorious. My parents built a house in North Long Beach. There were no other Japanese Americans. Our neighbors circulated a petition to get us moved out of the neighborhood. It did not succeed. Ironically, those same neighbors became my parents’ closest friends. The moral of the story is this: If you are able to advance into friendships when you face discrimination, barriers will be destroyed and racial identification will no longer be a salient feature [of your relationships]. It should be a lesson for all of us. Racial identity is not what you build relationships on. 

TS: You attended UCLA and received a B.A. and M.A. in Sociology. Was it difficult for you to get an education after the incarceration period? 

CT: My dad came from a privileged family. His father was a lawyer. However, due to the depression and my grandfather dying suddenly in 1933, my father had to find a job in order to take care of his mom. My mom came from a truck farmer family. She worked in the fields to help her dad and pulled out of high school. Later, my father worked two jobs to send me to UCLA and my mom worked in the sewing factory. In spite of our being poor, I never felt poor. My dad managed to save money, put me through school, and always used his savings to provide for my mother and me. They held their heads high and managed to build a house, buy cars, and take a few days of vacation. By getting an education, I think I satisfied my parents’ dreams and expectations. 

TS: I know that a documentary, Amache Rose, recently came out featuring some volunteers from the University of Denver’s research project. It tells the story of horticulturists from Denver attempting to revive rose bushes that Dr. Clark found at Amache. How did it feel to contribute to and watch that documentary?

CT: Making that movie was amazing. There were so many important and interesting people in it. To include me was touching. It was also fascinating to think about the history that the rose witnessed. At one point, we called it a “witness rose.” If that rose could talk, what would it remember about the campers? I think it would have said, “Those people who came were very capable. They were not enemies. In spite of being here, they did the best they could. They contributed.” Look at all they did. For example, they brought their agricultural skills from California and introduced new crops such as celery. It had never grown there before, but it is now a very important crop in the area. The rose is a symbolic witness to what those people brought to the camp—to their resilience. It reflects resilience and their ability, against all odds, to make the best of things and go forward. 

TS: Why do you think it’s important to preserve the memory of Amache? What do you hope that the American people and government will take away from your efforts? 

CT: As I said, it’s been a personal journey. However, it has evolved into a story that I think everyone should know. I think that’s the whole point of why we lobbied so hard to get Amache turned into a National Historic Site [Amache National Historic Site Act]. We have a story of people who were disenfranchised, who were forcibly removed from their homes and denied their constitutional rights. There are the stories that I had, but also the stories of thousands of other people. That’s a story that should be conveyed to American citizens. This was wrong. It should never have happened and it should never happen again. Unfortunately, we sometimes doubt that. That’s why I keep sharing my story.

TS: Could you expand on what you meant when you said that you sometimes doubt whether or not an event like the incarceration of Japanese Americans will happen again? Do you think the discrimination and racism of our modern world is at all reflective of the political climate that motivated incarceration?

CT: The political climate today is very much like it was before the war. We, Japanese Americans and resident Japanese, faced a long history of anti-Asian sentiment dating back to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Then, there was the Alien Land Law (1913) which prevented people from becoming citizens and owning land. There were all kinds of laws that forbade Japanese Americans from marrying non-Japanese people.

During all of that time leading up to World War II, there was also violence. In fact, when my mother and her family tried to do any kind of social activities, they would find big signs that said: “Go home, Japs. We don’t want you.” There are similarities today. Look at the groups that the government is trying to expel. They’re trying to keep the Muslims and the Latinos from entering the country. We also have some current politicians who are trying to resist history. There are parallels. The same groups aren’t being targeted, but there are similar activities that aim to prevent people from becoming full citizens.

TS: Is there anything else you would like to share about your connection to Amache? Is there anything else you think people should know?

CT: I want to mention the importance of Amache becoming a National Historic Site. Four of the 10 incarceration camps are now National Historic Sites. In your lifetime, you’ll probably see more. Amache joined some wonderful places like Manzanar, Minidoka, and Tule Lake. The fact that we achieved National Historic Site status is an achievement for all of the people who passed through there—upward of about 10,000 people. They were forcefully removed from their homes. They were denied their constitutional rights. They lost so much, and yet they remained resilient. They embodied the ideals of “shikata ga nai” and they moved forward. Those people contributed to history. They have a story to tell. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.