The landscape of the Owens Valley has just as many stories to tell as its people, alternately flourishing and suffering with the seasons and symptoms of progress – witness to the doings of men and mother nature alike.
Several miles south of Independence, a swatch of land at the base of the Sierra has played host to various inhabitants, cultures and occurrences of significant import over hundreds of years. Initially a Paiute village, the land over time became home to a community of fruit ranchers making a living off the thriving orchard. Miners also lived in the town, named for the Spanish word for “apple orchard,” until the land was abandoned around 1929 after Los Angeles had bought up most of the water rights in the valley.
It was here, among the fruit trees and Bairs and Georges creeks and boulder fields, that the U.S. government began sending American citizens of Japanese descent in March of 1942. By the time World War II ended and the detention camp was closed in 1945, some 11,000 Japanese Americans had been held against their will at Manzanar – forced to live, work and attend school behind barbed wire fences and underneath towers manned by armed guards; trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy and freedom while surrounded by that vast landscape that ached with desolation and untouchable beauty.
And it is here, on this ground hallowed by the indignity and injustice suffered by its long-ago inhabitants, that thousands will gather this weekend to reflect on the past in order to change the future.
Former internees, their relatives, college students, students of history, local residents and the curious will gather this Saturday, April 26 for the 45th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, an event established by the Manzanar Committee to pay tribute to the site’s internees and the indomitable human spirit.
The pilgrimage is also meant to serve as an ongoing reminder of a dark chapter in U.S. history when fellow citizens were rounded up and locked away because of their race and ancestry – torn from their homes, schools, businesses and friends by Executive Order of the President of the United States.
The pilgrimage begins at noon Saturday at the Manzanar Cemetery, leading off with a procession of camp banners and a performance by the drum group, UCLA Kyodo Taiko.
According to the Manzanar Committee, two anniversaries will be celebrated at this year’s pilgrimage: the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the 10th anniversary of the grand opening of the Manzanar Interpretive Center.
Signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the landmark Civil Rights Act officially outlawed discrimination based on color, religion, sex or national origin.
The interpretive center was opened in 2004 in the restored Manzanar auditorium. There to help commemorate the occasion was Sue Kunitomi Embrey, an internee who founded the Manzanar Committee and initiated the first pilgrimage in 1969.
“ … Stories like this need to be told, and too many of us have died without telling our stories,” Embrey told those assembled. “The Interpretive Center is important because it needs to show to the world that America is strong as it makes amends for the wrongs it has committed, and that we will always remember Manzanar because of that.”
Each year the committee honors an individual or two who have followed in Embrey’s footsteps. On Saturday, the 2014 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award will be presented to Dr. Arthur Hansen and Mas Okui, “in recognition of their decades of work in preserving and sharing Manzanar’s stories,” the committee said in a press release.
Other speakers include Dr. Eileen Tamura, a professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
Saturday’s pilgrimage concludes with a traditional interfaith service and Ondo dancing, after which park rangers will offer walking tours of the National Historic Site.
Manzanar was one of 10 internment camps established on the West Coast, and today it is considered among the best preserved, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Manzanar Committee and National Park Service, which has been in charge of Manzanar since 1992 when it became a National Historic Site.
Embrey’s son, Bruce, is carrying on with his mother’s mission to preserve the site and educate the world about what happened there.
Most recently he has been embroiled in an effort to prevent the LADWP from building a 1,200-acre solar farm within line of sight of Manzanar, east of U.S. Highway 395.
There are numerous events happening Friday, Saturday and Sunday in conjunction with the 45th Annual Pilgrimage (see sidebar).