At former internment camp in North Idaho, digs yield history

In particular, the site of the Kooskia trash dump has produced a wealth of archaeological treasures, according to a University of Idaho team.


Forgotten Internment Camp

Stacey Lynn Camp and Morgan Bingle sift through dirt that was taken from near a trash incinerator at the camp.

STEVE HANKS — Lewiston Tribune

LOWELL - On a July morning in the forest of North Idaho, Morgan Bingle stood under a tarp sifting soil through a screen and watching yesteryear appear as dirt clods disintegrated.

Railroad tokens, buttons, shards of pottery and teeth were some of the things found at the site of the Kooskia Internment Camp, one of two Idaho locations that held Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Bingle is a member of a University of Idaho archaeological field school taking place this summer at the remote location. The dig is led by Stacey Lynn Camp, an assistant professor of anthropology.

"The archaeology often gives you the untold story," said Camp, standing in what was once the camp's trash dump. "A lot of World War II internment camp photos were staged."

An abandoned moss-covered incinerator could be seen nearby. Small flags, each marking the location of an artifact, dotted the landscape.

The trash dump is an archaeologist's dream, Camp said. Access to the area is cut off by a creek, which has protected the site from looters.

"Our goal is to clear as much as possible," she said.

This is the second excavation of the site. Camp first brought a team here in 2010. Much of the work is paid for with a National Park Service Japanese-American Confinement Sites grant.

Official photos were designed to show that prisoners were productive, content and being Americanized, Camp said. In one photo, a table at the camp was set in a traditional American way with plates and silverware. However, in the field they have found pieces of bowls, indicating that the internees might have maintained their own traditions - such as eating from a bowl with chopsticks.

When all the fragments are pieced together at the lab, a story will emerge.

"One hundred bowls versus two plates can tell a very different story," Camp said.

Among the larger items they've found is a hand-carved stone otter or dog, gears of a pocket watch, a porcelain vessel with a dragon motif, a dental tray, a U.S. Penitentiary button and gaming pieces. Each item has been bagged and logged with its exact location, right down to the soil layer, according to Camp.

Later they'll be analyzed at the university's Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology.

"The majority of the work we do is outside the field," Camp said.

After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, all people 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. They were relocated to various camps, with first-generation immigrants separated from the American-born. The men at the Kooskia camp were all first-generation immigrants. The camp was home to 265 internees from May 1943-1945. They helped to complete highway construction.

"Most people in Idaho know about Minidoka but not about Kooskia," said Laura Ng, a graduate student from the University of Massachusetts who is working at the site. "It's unique. It's hidden history."

Minidoka, outside Twin Falls, was Idaho's other camp. It held 13,078 Japanese-Americans during the war and was preserved as a national monument in 2001.

Ng is writing a thesis about how people coped with institutional confinement at the camps. Her research is based on the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, where more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were interned. She's interviewed many former prisoners, now in their 80s and 90s.

"Some people say it still affects their lives today," she said. "They couldn't find jobs. Their fathers committed suicide. Everybody's lives were altered forever."

Ng has met two people whose grandparents were interned at Kooskia.

"They are interested in the artifacts we find," she said. "It's important to people still alive today and their descendants."

In two seasons at the site, Camp's teams have found thousands of items.

"It's amazing there's that much stuff up here," said Mary Anne Davis, an associate state archaeologist who visited the site.

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