On a cold December day in 1969, a group of about 150 people, gathered for the first official Manzanar Pilgrimage put on by the Manzanar Committee. This year marks the 30th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage with the theme: "All Camp Reunion: Raise the Banner" and will be held on April 24th. Among some of the highlights of this year's pilgrimage will be Taiko master Kenny Endo, who played taiko at the 1975 Manzanar Pilgrimage, and the world-wide debut of a new odori, the "Manzanar Bushi," written and created by Nobuko Miyamoto, and performed by Atomic Nancy.
As a volunteer of the Manzanar Committee for the last three years, I've been involved with organizing the Camp-Out and evening program, held on the weekend of the Manzanar Pilgrimage. We used four-day Tule Lake Pilgrimage as a model for creating an atmosphere of sharing, educating and learning from intergenerational group discussions, oral histories, forums and a cultural program.
In 1997, about 35 people "camped out" at the Grays Meadows Campground about 6 miles west of Independence. It was our way to symbolically experience the weather that the Manzanar internees felt in the middle of the desert.
Of course, it was different in that we were voluntarily camping out in tents with sleeping bags and lots of modern day camping gear. Instead of rice gruel and mess hall lines, we had garden burgers, toasted marshmallows and hot chocolate. We were joined by a Nisei couple in a motor home. We had a really nice campfire with people sitting around chatting, hearing the stories of former camp internees, discussion about the Japanese Latin Americans and their struggle for redress, and an awesome poetry reading.
The atmosphere was friendly and open, and it was great to meet and connect with people of all ages. Unfortunately, we were competing with the elements. It was cold. The roaring sounds of Independence Creek rushing by our campsite was deafening, and we could barely hear what was going on.
So last year, we moved the evening program indoors. It was a diverse group of about 70 people. Student groups from UCLA, City College of San Francisco and UC Santa Cruz came for the Camp-Out and evening program. We were joined by members of the 50-500 Committee, who run on foot to Manzanar each year, 50 miles at a time. Several local residents of Bishop and Lone Pine also attended.
We heard history come-alive with stories from Sue Kunitomi Embrey, chair of the Manzanar Committee about the resistance in Manzanar. We also heard from Hector Watanabe, a Peruvian-born Japanese Latin American whose family was kidnapped from Peru and interned at Crystal City, Texas. The program was emceed by Dana Kawaoka, a student at UC Santa Cruz, and Tony Osumi of NCRR/Seigi.
We then broke up into small groups facilitated by students and organizers, who led discussions on the meaning and relevance to people today of the camp experience. The groups talked about why it's important to attend pilgrimages, and the relationship to current day issues like immigration, affirmative action, bilingual education and workers' rights. We asked people to imagine the Japanese American community in 30 years, when former internees with first-hand stories and will be a thing of the past. When the Nisei are gone, will the Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei continue the legacies created by the Pilgrimages?
Afterwards, we all regrouped, and a spokesperson from each of the small groups reported back on the main points that came out from the group's discussions. It was neat to see how unique the conversations were and yet how each group had worked together to have open dialogues. We then went into the Open Mic and Poetry portion of the program. People shared poetry, spoken word and creatively and openly expressed their feelings in artistic and meaningful ways. For me, it was a moment of intense pride and I really felt a warm and spiritual vibe circulating throughout the room.
So this year, we look forward to celebrating the 30th annual Pilgrimage with you. We are expecting about 800 people at the Pilgrimage for the daytime program and invite everyone who isn't coming by bus, to stick around for this year's evening program "Manzanar After Dark."
For people interested in camping out, there are still campsites available at Grays Meadows. Camping will be on your own, but you can reserve a campsite by calling the National Recreation Reservation Service at (800) 280-2267. Campsites are $8 per night plus an $8.25 reservation fee.
There are also several motels in town that people can stay at if they want to attend the evening program, but don't want to sleep on the ground. Or, I encourage those who annually go fishing at Lake Crowley for opening weekend or who want to ski in Mammoth, to come to the Pilgrimage and "Manzanar After Dark," and spend the night in Bishop, before heading up for more recreational activities on Sunday.
"Manzanar After Dark" will be held at the VFW Hall on Highway 395 in Independence. The Social Hour and refreshments will begin at 5:30 pm and the program will start at 6:30 pm. The program will be free and open to the public. We hope to see you there.
Jenni Emiko Kuida is a member of the Manzanar Committee, the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California and NCRR/Seigi.