Gila River Pilgrimage

“The legacy of the Pima Indians has always been associated with helping others and sharing.” Urban Griff, (Pima Indian historian).

Our Journey to Phoenix Arizona started with two symposium panels at the Arizona Hall of Fame Museum on April 16th. The public was invited to listen in on historical accounts given by former internees at the Butte campsite. Poston and Butte Detention Camps became the third and fourth largest cities in the state of Arizona, overnight. Pat Morita and Kenso Zenimura provided Camp stories, Gary Otake embellished on the historical significance and I moderated the four man panel. It was a nice reunion almost 60 years later for Kenso to see James ‘Step’ Tomooka and family, who he competed with at Zenimura Field. “Once the word got out that the Zenimura’s were building a baseball diamond...almost a hundred volunteers came out to clear the sagebrush and rocks,” said Step. Arizona Hall of Fame curator Jacqueline Miller and Arizona Humanities coordinator, Rick Noguchi hosted our stay. Rick and I spent many hours on the phone planning these events, and he worked very hard to make things happen for us.

The next morning we traveled out forty miles in the desert on the ironically named Pearl Harbor Freeway to revisit Butte Arizona’s Concentration Camp, located in the Gila River Indian Community.
We met up with Mas Inoshita, a volunteer caretaker of the Butte Memorial site and a Nisei/M.I.S. resident of Glendale, Arizona. He has been unofficially adopted into the Pima Indian Tribe. Mas guided us to the Gila River Indian Community Center to meet with Governor Mary Thomas. She is the spiritual leader of her people and her positive magnetism filled the room as she greeted us.

Our Team members were Pat and Evelyn Morita, Kenso Zenimura, Rick Noguchi, Gary Otake, Kaz Arai, Mas Inoshita, Gan Hanada, Les & Rick, ( NHK) Elaine Notah and the tribal council of the Gila River Community.
I presented on behalf of NBRP, a signed tribute baseball that Pat and Kenso autographed and a NBRP T-shirt. Governor Thomas reciprocated with gifts of her own; Official Gila River pendants, olive oil from Zenimura Field and bottled water. She explained to us how the Gila River Indian Community is totally self-sufficent. They have the Gila River Casino, Gila River Farms, ( olive oil. oranges, wheat, alphalpha) a Resource Center and Museum, Fire Department, Waste Management and they lease out part of Falcon Field, an airport on their land. Governor Thomas had just returned from Xian, China. Included with the terracotta warriors was an ancient hut that is exactly like the Pima Indian’s. It really puts a new spin to the Asians migration through the Bering Strait and fortifies the theory of our cultures spiritually infused. She asked Pat and Kenso why they had made the journey to Gila River. Pat acknowledged my insistence, good timing and their desire to reconnect with their past. Governor Thomas took their hands and began to cry. She said, “ babies were born on our land and some of your people died here. You are part of our community and we apologize for what happened.” Pat very emotionally explained that the Gila River Indian community was not responsible for the internment of Japanese Americans and we were forced on to their land. Governor Thomas was a child at the time but held feelings much like some of our Nisei, “We should have resisted the governments demands.” Tears flowed throughout the room like the ancient Gila River and I realized that baseball was once our focal point... but now has become a cultural phenomenon that touches all of us.

We toured the Resource Center and the relics of Camp 1 and 11. Broken china, rusted toys and jewelry filled their bins from the camp dump sites.
Our final destination placed us on the top of the hill of the Butte Camp site memorial. Permanent plaques dedicated to the internees and the soldiers K.I.A. with the 442/100th/M.I.S. are anchored on the top of the hill. Miles and miles of foundations and overgrown weeds and sagebrush covered the camp landscape. Kenso went directly to his former barrack space and reflected back on his stay. “ We lived right here in apartment 13 C. My Mom, Dad and brother Kenshi stayed here. Next to us was my Grandmother and her family.” Pat and Kenso stood in front of what used to be the mess hall. “Remember they used to ring the bell for us to come to eat,” said Pat.

A short distance from block 28, Zenimura Field was now an olive orchard. So naturally I broke out the mitts and ball so Kenso and Pat could play catch again. What a incredible sight watching Kenso and Pat, tossing the ball back and forth on Zenimura Field, fifty-six years later.
At seven o’clock that evening, we were behind home plate at the BOB, (Bank One Ballpark) and watched the roof of the 350 million stadium open up to Pat Morita belting out the national anthem. Fifty-thousand cheered his rendition. He high fived our Team Morita group and the energized Diamondback players as he left the field.

Our group was treated to the owner’s suite arranged by Madeline Ong Sakata. Her Father, Wing Ong, was the first U.S. Legislator that served two terms in the prewar days in Phoenix. The honorable Bill Lam Lee, State Legislator Barry Wong and Superior Court Judge Brian Ishikawa, ( who even caught a foul ball) cheered on the winning Diamondbacks with us.
Before we left the stadium, I was caught up with the images of desert sand and sagebrush transformed by community spirit, passion and labor... to a field of dreams. Almost six decades later, the field has now been recycled to a productive olive orchard....and down the road, another field of dreams has been constructed, but at a much greater cost. From sagebrush and sandlot baseball to Major League baseball, Barbed wire to Olive branches and Pima Indians and Japanese Americans. We have now discovered our new relatives in Arizona.

Kerry Yo Nakagawa

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