At Manzanar, Diverse Voices Find Common Ground

Ondo dancing has been a tradition at the pilgrimage for decades.

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

Close to 800 people participated in the 49th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, held on April 28.

This year’s pilgrimage recognized the 30th anniversary of the passage of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act (CLA), with the slogan “Silent No More: Liberty and Justice for All!” The CLA, also known as the redress bill, provided an apology and a token reparation to Japanese Americans who had been wrongly incarcerated in U.S.-style concentration camps during World War II.

Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer from the Lone Pine Pauite-Shoshone Reservation, welcomed the pilgrimage attendees.

“Our reservation lies just to the south of here,” Jefferson Bancroft said. “It’s a small piece of land that was traded by the federal government with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, as a place for us to live and use.

“Not too many years before that, the Numanu — my people — lived everywhere your eyes could see from here. Now, we never have given up our right to claim this land as our traditional homeland, and we would like to officially welcome you to Paya Hunatu.

“We feel a connection to the people who were placed on this piece of land during World War II, not only because of the connection to this place, but because we share many of the same experiences and concerns.”

Jefferson Bancroft was among those who had successfully fought LADWP’s recent efforts to construct an industrial solar panel farm across from the Manzanar National Historic Site, which would have destroyed the historic integrity of the site.

Bernadette Johnson, superintendent of the Manzanar NHS, reflected upon the 30th anniversary of the CLA, and said, “I’m personally inspired by all the grassroots efforts that are happening now in support of other groups, whether it be on immigration or the LBGTQ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer) communities or the women’s marches or march by scientists…I always say what would have happened if, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, we had had the same level of grassroots support for the Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans? Would we have had the ten camps?”

Lawson Sakai carries the Go For Broke banner in a procession at the conclusion of the pilgrimage. He volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and saw action in Italy and France.


A show of hands indicated that about half the attendees were first-timers to the pilgrimage. Among those was Tasha Cerda, mayor of Gardena, who had been invited by Wilbur Sato, this year’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award recipient.

“Just taking the drive out here, I can’t even imagine what the families were thinking when they were taken so far away from their homes and brought out to the desert,” said Cerda. “It took me over three hours to get here, and I can imagine what a very scary feeling it must’ve been for families, small kids, of the unknown, not knowing where they were being taken.”

Visibly absent this year was the consul general of Japan.

Another group that did not make it to the pilgrimage this year was a bus from Gardena due to their bus encountering not one, but two, flat tires. By the time a replacement bus was brought over, the pilgrimage ceremony was over and the Gardena contingent headed back without ever making it to Manzanar.

Hanako Wakatsuki from the Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho joined the circle of dancers.


The highlight of the pilgrimage was Ann Burroughs, the new president and chief executive officer of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), whose speech was met with cheers and applause from the crowd.

“When I was in my twenties, in my native South Africa, during those very, very dark days of apartheid, I joined the resistance movement to fight for democracy, for justice and against the policies of racial segregation that were the laws of the land,” said Burroughs. “It was an extraordinarily difficult time that carried enormous uncertainty and enormous fear. We faced police brutality. We faced troops in our townships. Activists and leaders were disappeared and assassinated, and at that time, it was routine for activists who were arrested to be tortured. Peaceful protest was criminalized. A gathering like this would never have been allowed because it was not lawful. Journalists were silenced, and all political opposition was criminalized.”

The monument in the Manzanar cemetery is adorned with strings of paper cranes as pilgrims offer flowers and prayers.

Burroughs was arrested in 1986, along with many others who had been detained indefinitely, without trial, under an emergency law.

“I was held first in solitary confinement in a very small police cell in a college town that I lived in,” she recalled. “Then finally, I was moved to a maximum security prison and interrogated on an almost daily basis. And it was during that time that I learned that the Security Police, the South African Security Police, were building treason charges against me, which carried an incredibly high penalty. The minimum sentence was ten years and the maximum sentence was 20 years. If I had not been white, I would have faced the death penalty.

“When I was finally released, I was issued a banning order, which meant that I could only stay in my geographic location. I was banned from writing. I was a journalist. I was a researcher. I was not allowed to write. I was not allowed to speak. I was not allowed to be in gatherings of more than three people. And the most difficult part of it all was that I found myself in another prison, but it was in an invisible prison that I was having to police myself and my friends were having to police me.”

In 1990, Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid revolutionary leader, was released after serving 27 years in prison. Soon after, Mandela and then-President F.W. de Klerk negotiated an end to apartheid, but race relations did not improve overnight.

The Muslim community was represented by members of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations).

“For me personally, I still had to wait several more years before I was allowed to marry my fiancé, who was not white,