Crossed Wires

Japanese American Incarceration and the Environmental Frontier

My current book project, Crossed Wires, focuses on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. From this historical vantage point, I draw on ecocritical and settler colonial frameworks to theorize
the relationship between immigrant and indigenous populations in the United States as they are produced by relations to land and acts of environmental transformation.

Crossed Wires intervenes in discourses of the U.S. carceral state and border consolidation, and is additionally informed by a growing body of incarceration work in the fields of environmental history and geography. I posit environmental transformation as a core element of Japanese American incarceration, examining the way the War Relocation Authority’s agricultural projects rhetorically and materially sought to reclaim the “frontier” West for the U.S. (white) settler state.

I examine how the stakes of the incarceration shift when it becomes not only an act of racial exclusion and war hysteria, but also a conscious reiteration of the settler colonial frontier—a frontier which, in the confines of an incarceration camp, is quickly denuded of its fantasies of a free West.

In turn, I explore the ways Japanese Americans narrated their own relationship to their camp environments, imaginatively traversing geologic time, as in Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory; performing cowboy outlaw, as in Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine; and confronting the Native erasures that subtend every frontier “success story,” as in Hiroshi Nakamura’s Treadmill and Mitsuye Yamada’s “Desert Run.”


The primary intervention of Crossed Wires lies in its ecocritical approach to narratives of Japanese American incarceration, which illuminates the ways that Japanese Americans’ imaginative encounters with their environment express alternative ways of being and belonging in a place. These ways of being foreground Japanese Americans’ relation to Native peoples, as guests on their land and as potential allies and accomplices against the U.S. settler colonial state. When U.S. military spaces like Fort Sill can serve as a prison to Native warriors during the 19th century, to Japanese Americans in the 20th, and to border crossers in the 21st, examining the intersections between ethnic, Native, and environmental studies is more crucial than ever to imagining radically different futures.


Looking forward, I see my work as increasingly centered on immigrant-indigenous crossings and borderlands studies. As I write my fourth chapter, I plan to extend my book project’s theoretical framing to encompass the ways Japanese American incarceration probes new questions about the way environments are rhetoricized to constitute nations. For instance, although the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans is often regarded as an abrogation of the rights of Japanese American citizens, this framing fails to hold the United States accountable for similar carceral projects enacted upon non-citizens, and/or populations for whom inclusion within the U.S. nation-state is not a desirable outcome.

Shigeru Kawamoto worked at the Bolan Cattle Ranch while incarcerated during World War II at the Topaz incarceration camp in northwestern Utah.
Nokomis Stone and Winter Melody Harper–Miss Colorado River and Little Miss Colorado River, respectively–attend the Poston Pilgrimage on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, October 2019.

Shigeru Kawamoto was a cowboy. His photograph in the Great Basin Museum captures him astride a horse. He is dressed in cowboy gear—dark brimmed hat, thick boots, lasso. In the background there are grazing cows. While incarcerated, Kawamoto worked the Bolan cattle ranch.

Kawamoto wasn’t a bred ranch hand; he and most of the other Japanese Americans at Topaz had never ridden a horse before. But Kawamoto went to prison and became a cowboy—that gunslinging, hard-riding, emblem of the freedom of the American West.


What does it mean for a Japanese American prisoner to become a cowboy?

It’s not just an occupation, after all. Not behind barbed wire, and not in 1942.

Like the bull snakes brought into this desert by the soldiers
we were transported here
to drive away rattlers
in your nightmares
we were part of someone’s plan

“Desert Run”
Mitsuye Yamada

Eighteen miles down Mojave Road, the buses pull into the parking lot of the Colorado River Indian Tribes Fire Department, which it shares with the Poston Memorial Monument. The monument is ringed with palm trees and surrounded by flat green alfalfa fields. Today, a number of rally tents are set up with white folding chairs clustered beneath them. The first few rows are reserved for camp survivors. Local high school students hand out plastic water bottles.

The pilgrimage is a wily genre, difficult to pin down. The notion of pilgrimage suggests reverence, and there is of course a seriousness attached to commemorations of wartime.

But the dress code is casual, bright T-shirts and baseball caps, foam visors and fanny packs. Only U.S. Congressman Paul Gosar is wearing a suit, and only Miss CRIT and Little Miss CRIT, the reservation’s recently crowned pageant winners and cultural ambassadors, dress in regalia. The opening ceremonies are a combination of small talk and breakfast snacks, prepared speeches and the National Anthem. It’s not a funeral, nor holiday parade; nor graduation, nor sporting event, though it manages to entertain elements of all of these. The pilgrimage is an expression—elliptical, bombastic, not quite defined—that something happened here.

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