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Leupp, Arizona: A Shared Historic Space for the Navajo Nation and Japanese Americans

On April 27, 1943, at 7:00 a.m., Harry Yoshio Ueno and five other Japanese American men arrived at Old Leupp, located on Navajo land in northeastern Arizona, after a thirteen-hour ride from Moab, Utah, in a box in the back of a pick-up truck. The cramped box had but a two-by-two-foot opening for entry and exit. Ueno lamented that it was “Hot! Humid! We really had a hard ride.”1 The Leupp Isolation Center, administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), was encased by a high barbed wire fence and 150 military police patrolled the unit. The guards outnumbered the Japanese American occupants two to one.

Why were Japanese Americans sent to Leupp Isolation Center and how did the United States government decide upon Leupp as an isolation center site? What kind of relations did the Navajos have with the Japanese American prisoners? Leupp Isolation Center was in operation from late April to early December of 1943, a relatively short time, yet area Navajos continue today to relate the history of Japanese American incarceration with stories and memories about the Leupp Isolation Center.

Before delving into the circumstances surrounding Leupp as an isolation center, some background of the World War II Japanese American exclusion and detention experience is essential for understanding this period of time. Patriotic fervor ran rampant among American men and women on December 7, 1941, when Japanese military unloaded an aerial barrage upon the American Navy fleet docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States had been drawn into World War II. The surprise attack so completely unnerved the United States that people, influenced by media-fed propaganda, became paranoid and fearful and some wanted to wreak vengeance on their Japanese American neighbors. Discrimination was based on Asian looks and grounded in anti-Asian legal and extralegal actions extending back into the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Families were uprooted. Businesses were lost and lives ruined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s zeal to protect America from Japan. Tens of thousands of Japanese Americans on the West Coast were evicted from their homes and communities. From such coastal metropolises as Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco in California, Portland in Oregon, and Seattle in Washington, these victims of war were transported to hastily fashioned “assembly” and “relocation” camps consisting of communal everything: shelters, dining areas, and showers. John Tateishi, who spent his early childhood at the Manzanar camp in eastern California, reflects,

There were no tree-lined streets in our world as we suddenly found ourselves in prisons in the middle of deserts displaced and bewildered outcasts in our own country. We clung to our parents, trusting that they would protect us from what we could not possibly understand. We looked up at guard towers and felt a deep fear of armed soldiers who stood over us, and felt within our hearts the meaning of barbed-wire fences which, for us, was a symbol of a new America. We were the children of the camps, prisoners in our own country.2

There were ten relocation camps3 established across the Interior West of America, all of which were constructed in military fashion with barracks and mess halls. These camps ultimately housed 120,000 Japanese Americans (chiefly in family groups), the majority of who spent most of the remaining years of World War II in these camps. The Manzanar Relocation Center, the most widely known WRA camp, was located 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles, California, and was the former home of the Owens Valley Paiute Indian tribe. Among the larger of the WRA camps, Manzanar housed some 10,000 Japanese Americans. Although their lives were disrupted, some Japanese Americans dealt with their dire situations by keeping a positive attitude and making the most of their surroundings.

One of the most notable Manzanarians was the earlier referenced Harry Yoshio Ueno.4 Born in Hawai’i, on the island of Mau’i, in 1907, Ueno lived most of his adult life in California, both before World War II, and then again in the years after the war. A Kibei (an American-born citizen of Japanese ancestry educated in Japan), Ueno was imprisoned at Manzanar with his wife and children. Prior to the war, Ueno was a retail clerk in Los Angeles at both a fruit stand and a grocery store. While at Manzanar Ueno worked in the mess hall kitchen of his block. In this capacity he discovered that some of Manzanar’s government employees were stealing rationed sugar and meat and either selling these items on the black market or hoarding the goods for themselves. Moreover, while the Japanese inmates craved sugar to sweeten their coffee, Caucasian officials had full sugar bowls at each staff table; and whereas the appointed personnel frequently enjoyed steak, Ueno could recall only one time when the internees had a main course of steak (which he and other mess hall workers served to the children first). Clearly, camp officials had re-routed rationed foods to their own tables. Ueno therefore exposed these thefts and worked to organize Japanese American mess hall workers to stop the stealing and so keep their share of rationed foods for the consumption of their ethnic community. However, attempting to unionize the kitchen workers led to Ueno’s arrest, which in turn made him the focal point of the Manzanar Riot on December 5-6, 1942.

All ten of the WRA camps witnessed, to some degree, resistance activity directed against repressive camp procedures and their Caucasian oppressors. Then too, at each camp the Japanese American populace expressed extreme dismay about the high volume of sugar thefts, the missing meat rations, and the presence of informants; they also voiced general opposition, as loyal citizens and law-abiding aliens, to being detained in concentration camps. But the most serious of the disturbances to rock the WRA camps?one that escalated into violence?occurred at Manzanar. Tensions were already high at the camp in late 1942, and then, to make matters still worse, a prewar Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) 5 leader, Fred Tayama,6 was beaten up on the night of December 5, 1942. In reflecting on this situation at Manzanar in 1986, Ueno told his oral history interviewers,

No, no. I never thought that any riot or violence would occur in camp. The only thing I was thinking, “As long as we’re in the camp we might as well do the best we can and make harmony in the camp to enjoy whatever life we were having in there.” But I guess things didn’t work that way all the time, you now, there are always greedy people around who want power or money or something, you know.7

After Ueno was arrested for the alleged beating of Tayama, irate Manzanar detainees protested and formed committees that unsuccessfully negotiated for his release. On the evening of December 6, 1942, a crowd of angry Nikkei (Japanese Americans) bent upon freeing Ueno from the camp jail confronted an armed contingent of military police who had been called into the camp from their adjacent compound at the invitation of Manzanar’s apprehensive new director, Ralph Merritt. One thing led to another and eventually some of the soldiers fired into the crowd, hitting eleven men. One young man died on the spot, while another suffered the same fate later that night at the camp hospital.

Ueno was transported out of Manzanar to a nearby local jail in the Owens Valley town of Bishop, California. After being held in another jail in Lone Pine for about a month, he was transferred in early January 1943, along with others from the camp suspected of fomenting the Manzanar riot, to a so-called “temporary isolation center” at the site of a vacant former Civilian Conservation Corp camp in Moab, Utah. There, during the next two months, they were joined by alleged “troublemakers” from the other WRA centers. These men were transported from family and friends, according to one source, “for crimes as minor as calling a Caucasian nurse an old maid.” Further, “no formal charges had to be made, [and] transfer was purely at the discretion of the [respective] relocation center director.”8 Then, in late April of 1943, Ueno and the others deemed as “undesireables” were transported to a high-security isolation facility on the Navajo Nation near Winslow, Arizona, at the abandoned township of Leupp. During its seven months of operation in 1943, there were forty-five to seventy-six Japanese American men imprisoned at the Leupp Isolation Center.

In the early 1900’s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs established an Indian boarding school in Old Leupp. This area was comprised of the school, administrative buildings, a Presbyterian church, nurses’ and teachers’ residences, and a water tower and windmill. A levee, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, served as a boundary on the east and northeast side of Old Leupp. The school had closed in early 1942 because of its location on the flood plain. The site was vacant for over a year before the first Japanese Americans prisoners were taken there in April 1943. The boarding school had been built for the Indians, later abandoned due to its location, and now reopened to house the Japanese. The maneuvers had to be interesting for the area Navajo. Because the structures were already in place—even if condemned, people did live around the area—the War Relocation Authority might have thought that the boarding school was an ideal spot to house Japanese American troublemakers. Perhaps the notion applied that, if it was good enough for the Indians, Leupp was good enough for Japanese American “undesireables.”

The water tower and windmill still stand at Old Leupp. The laundry and dining area foundations lie in rubble in the foreground. This is the eastern portion of the Leupp Isolation Center; a part of the dike is in the background.

The Navajo Nation is a beautiful and diverse land with mesas, buttes, deserts, canyons, and mountains, but for the most part it is dry country and poor economically. The region of Leupp has long held a fascination for some Navajos, particularly since it once housed Japanese Americans. Some Navajos are convinced that there was more going on at Old Leupp than has been conveyed in history books. Legends abound about Japanese American imprisonment at Leupp, quite possibly because the Navajos, no strangers to dominant society discrimination, empathize with the Japanese Americans’ World War II plight.

The site of Leupp Isolation Center and surrounding area, which includes a Presbyterian church, is now referred to as Old Leupp. Leupp, proper, another separate community, is approximately three miles northwest, on the other side of the river, and consists of a convenience store with a gas station, a technology plant, a public school, and several housing groups. Leupp Isolation Center had been open to the elements: heat, wind, rain, and snow. The area spoke of a hard life in a harsh land. Mostly, the terrain of Old Leupp still looks today much like it did when the Japanese American men were incarcerated there. The area is picturesque with far-off sand dunes and buttes of the Navajo and Hopi Nations bordering all sides, except the west, which is dominated by the majestic San Francisco Peaks. From time to time, the area floods with overflow from the Little Colorado River, which flows west of Old Leupp.

The San Francisco Peaks viewed from Old Leupp. This was the view that the Japanese American inmates at the Leupp Isolation Center observed daily during their six-month confinement in 1943. To the Navajos, the peaks are Doko'oosliid, Abalone Shell Mountain

Some Navajo natives from the Leupp area have spoken of the isolation center as a mysterious place, because they believe it is wrought with underground tunnels and secret chambers. Navajos tell tales that the compound was heavily guarded, that Japanese American men were mistreated and kept in isolation in underground holding cells, and that secret underground tunnels connected the buildings. An old-time Navajo resident of Leupp has identified a dirt road that led to a small graveyard in Leupp, where it is believed that two Japanese Americans were buried. Claims of the graveyard could not be investigated because of the Navajo affiliations with Chindi,9 a Navajo concept associated with death and ghosts. People of the area also believe that important documents are buried in their file cabinets beneath the bulldozed rubble.

Bateen,10 a Navajo man whose family lived among the sage scattered, clay-based land that used to house the Japanese American prisoners, has extensively explored this portion of his homeland. Bateen and numerous family members sometimes ran amok in this area in their youth and ventured into some underground portions. It seems, to the Navajos of Old Leupp, that Leupp as a Japanese American isolation center is more exciting and intriguing than an area comprising an Indian boarding school. Possibly, it is better and easier to look at Old Leupp as a place that held Japanese Americans who, at the time of World War II, were perceived as a threat to mainstream America, than to look at Leupp as a place where prewar Indian children were torn from their parents. Many Indians, Bateen included, have a very grim view of boarding schools and some suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome due to the boarding school concept of assimilation or conversion to dominant society. Bateen has reported that when a riot (of sorts) broke out in Leupp, a Navajo, who was a guard at the compound, ran thirteen miles to Canyon Diablo (or thereabouts) to use their radio system to call for help. This tends to support the Navajo feeling that events at Old Leupp were wrought with espionage and secret doings. However, there are no written reports of an insurgence or an uprising at the Leupp Isolation Center. Bateen was astonished when I told him that the isolation camp was in operation from April to December of 1943. He was sure that the Japanese Americans were at Leupp for a much longer period.

At Old Leupp, there are, in fact, underground holding cells or cellars. Harry Ueno, in his oral history interview about Leupp with Wendy Ng, said, “The other person they put in the jail in—they got a cellar for—used to put the Indian children in the jail under the administration office. . . .”11 It seems that those “cellars” were used to hold Japanese American men and Indian children alike. Young people who had been torn from their families might have been punished for speaking their non-English, traditional language, and like the Japanese Americans prisoners of relocation camps, the students in the boarding school could be punished for infractions at the discretion of the school commissioner. Claims of secret tunnels, though they may exist, could be a well, or an opening under a sentry post. Bateen pointed out an entrance to a supposed tunnel that sits just below an outhouse. The road to the graveyard was impassable and it would be necessary to take a hike to that area to see if any markers indicate burial of any Japanese Americans who may have died during the April to December interval in 1943. Claims of important documents being buried in their file cabinets in basements of structures will have to go unchecked, for the immense rubble requires heavy equipment to clear the way for field studies. The Hirasaki National Resource Center at the Japanese American National Museum, located in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles, California, contains many volumes on the World War II concentration camps, especially Manzanar (as well as other aspects of Japanese American history, society, and culture), but not much detailed information regarding the Leupp Isolation Center. National Museum Senior Research Assistant Marie Masumoto has indicated that no reference exists in the literature related to the Leupp facility of any insurgency having ever occurred there. However, if there was a squabble of some sort at the Leupp Isolation Center it should, explained Masumoto, be documented in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where War Relocation Authority records are archived. (Perhaps evidence, if any exists, can be found in those file cabinets thought to be in the basements beneath the rubble.)

Although there is little information regarding the Leupp Isolation Center and its affect on area peoples, the Navajo tales of this onetime camp for alleged Japanese American “troublemakers” serve, in effect, to preserve the memories of the center as not just an old abandoned boarding school, but as an isolation center that held Japanese Americans behind a barbed wire fence. At Leupp today, foundation pads and some sidewalks exist beneath inches of silt and fine sand. The Presbyterian church still stands and is in use. A white wooden structure is barely standing, which Bateen has identified as a clinic, but it does not appear on the layout of the center. After it was abandoned, the wooden clinic was used as a residence by a Navajo family. It is now completely uninhabitable. An old model trailer house sits next to this old white clinic building. There is no electricity and the current Navajo resident must haul his water and burn wood to keep his place warm. It’s a very poor living, but the Navajo has eked out a living in an inhospitable land simply because he has had to do so.

Once Old Leupp was a bustling place with people abounding there, but now it is almost deserted. At one time, the area saw an Indian boarding school and, at another time, an isolation center, but what these two developments—occurring at two different historical moments for two different racial-ethnic groups—shared was the experience of forced imprisonment. The land in which the Leupp site is set is harsh with periodic flooding, vicious windstorms, extreme heat and cold of the high desert, and very little rainfall. The Navajo residents raise a few goats and contend with their hostile environment by trying to better their lives. The reminders of rubble, which are part of the landscape, convey that the Navajo is not alone in enduring discrimination and hardships, for Japanese Americans, in the early 1940s, suffered injustices here as well. The rubble thus acts as a reminder to future and present generations of Navajos and Americans of the frailty of American civil rights.

1. Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Arthur A. Hansen, and Betty Kulberg Mitson, Manzanar Martyr, An Interview with Harry Y. Ueno (Fullerton, CA: California State University, Fullerton, Oral History Program, 1986), 74.

2. John Y. Tateishi, “Memories from Behind Barbed Wire,” Last Witnesses Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans, ed. Erica Harth (New York, NY: Palgrave St. Martin, 2001), 129.

3. The nine other War Relocation Centers were Gila River and Poston in Arizona, Granada in Colorado, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas, Minidoka in Idaho, Tule Lake in California, and Topaz in Utah.

4. Harry Yoshio Ueno (pronounced u-way-no), also known as the Manzanar Martyr, was considered a hero by some at Manzanar. After the war he became a successful fruit grower in northern California’s Santa Clara County, dying at age ninety-seven in December 2004. Between 1942 and 1946, Ueno was incarcerated not only at Manzanar, but also Moab Isolation Center, Leupp Isolation Center, and Tule Lake Segregation Center.

5. The JACL, especially after Pearl Harbor, was known for its strident patriotism. At Manzanar, this organization did not function under its prewar name, but instead called itself the Manzanar Citizens Federation.

6. Along with two-thirds of Manzanar’s population, Tayama was a Nisei (US birthright citizen of Japanese ancestry whose immigrant generation parents, Issei, were ineligible for naturalization) . Widely regarded as an informant within the Manzanar population, Tayama was both distrusted and disliked for that reason.

7. Embrey, Hansen, and Mitson, Manzanar Martyr, 70.

8. Jeffery F. Burton, et al., Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 325.

9. The Navajos believe that when a person dies, a ghost—what they call a chindi—is released with the last dying breath. This chindi is always an evil force who returns to avenge some offense. Contact with a chindi is very dangerous, and causes sickness or misfortune. So the Navajo are quite fearful of and take every precaution to avoid contact with a chindi.

10. Bateen Redsteer, a forty-seven-year-old Navajo man who has lived in and explored the area of Leupp since 1969, has identified remnants and foundations of many former area structures, including the graveyard in which the two Japanese Americans are said to be interred.

11. Ng, Wendy. Regenerations. Oral History Project. January 23, 1998 and May 9, 1998.


* The story of Leupp is less known than either Poston and Bronzeville, but like those places, this story is also about "shared space." Learn more about "shared space" in a presentation titled "Sharing a Historic Space: African Americans, Native Americans, and Nikkei" at the Enduring Communities National Conference on July 3-6, 2008 in Denver, CO. Enduring Communities is a project of the Japanese American National Museum.

© 2008 Debra Redsteer

About this series

Enduring Communities: The Japanese American Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah is an ambitious three-year project dedicated to re-examining an often-neglected chapter in U.S. history and connecting it with current issues of today. These articles stem from that project and detail the Japanese American experiences from different perspectives. 

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About the Author

Debra Jean McCabe Redsteer is a full blood Navajo, whose clans are Red Bottom born for Bitter Water. McCabe Redsteer was born in Los Angeles, California. Her parents were among the thousands of AmerIndians relocated to the Los Angeles area and other big cities during the 1950’s in the federal government’s controversial relocation program. A Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, graduate of History in 2007, McCabe Redsteer currently works as administrative support assistant in the Department of History at California State University, Fullerton.

Updated June 2008

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