May 28, 2012

Embracing and Subverting Civil Religion in the American West: Japanese Americans during World War II

Part Two

By Anne Blankenship

Memorial Day offers a chance for me to conclude my reflections on the use of American mythology and civil religion by incarcerated Japanese and Japanese Americans in the 1940s. My entry today examines how incarcerees placed themselves within the narrative of pioneers taming the Western frontier. Identifying themselves as pioneers and pilgrims affirmed their role within American history, but Japanese methods of conquering land differed aesthetically from those of Euro-American pioneers. The construction of ornamental gardens and the use of alternative farming methods visually diversified the Western landscape and expanded the cultural and racial definitions of the Old West.

Steeped in the American mythology taught in public schools, the second generation of Japanese Americans readily identified parallels between their experiences and those of Euro-American pioneers and pilgrims. Named by incarcerees or white staff, several camp newspaper titles—the Granada Pioneer, the Rohwer Outpost and the Minidoka Irrigator—expressed this iconography. The inaugural edition of the Irrigator invoked the pioneer struggles of the Old West:
We can have but one resolve; to apply our combined energies and efforts to the grim task of conquering the elements and converting a wasteland into an inhabitable community…. Our goal is the creation of an oasis. Our great adventure is a ‘repetition of the frontier struggle of pioneers against the land and the elements.’ Our future will be what we make it, and there is no reason to despair.
A subsequent article promised that their pioneering experience would become legendary, emphasizing incarcerees’ responsibility to create an exemplary society. Japanese Americans would increase agricultural yields and erect democratic civilizations where there had been none before.

Camp staff and incarcerees both employed American narratives to motivate communities within the camps and raise morale. However, imprisonment and alienation ironically facilitated a claim to American land and an identity otherwise denied to them. Some incarcerees must have scorned this rhetoric, but such dissent has largely disappeared from the historical record. Japanese Christians extended these metaphors further. Hoping to do more than just conquer the wilderness, the Methodist minister Taro Gato urged incarcerees to make camp “a bit of [God]’s Kingdom on Earth” (Topaz Times, 17 Sept 1942). Poems invoked the ethnic community’s role in Christian America’s manifest destiny to occupy “the last frontiers” of the country. Japanese farmers concluded that their new environment was a “new agricultural frontier—one of the last land frontiers in the US” (El Joaquin, 28 Sept 1942). Developing land largely rejected by early settlers allowed Japanese Americans to close the final vestiges of the frontier and complete this chapter of America’s history.

The drawings, poems and essays of Japanese American children demonstrate a clear notion of being accomplished pioneers. Placing their lives within a pioneer narrative elevated their collective roles and responsibilities to those of American heroes. Two drawings by elementary students at Poston, a camp within the borders of an Arizona Indian reservation, portray the physical changes to the landscape. “Poston Before We Came” depicts a desert landscape void of people, cultivated fields and livestock.

"Poston Before We Came," Junior Red Cross Albums
Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, UC Berkeley

In contrast, an illustration to the essay “Poston Early Pioneers” shows workers clearing the land and building barracks. The young artist explained how their parents “worked hard to cooperate” and that the “boy and girl citizens” help “at home, in school and in [the] community . . . to make Poston a better place in which to live.” This rhetoric echoes can-do sentiments prominent during World War II, but the student then returned to their unique struggle: “Our pioneers have been here a year. We are proud of our progress on the desert.” Repeating notable agricultural achievements on the coast, their parents literally made the desert bloom during their incarceration.

"Clearing Up the Poston Desert," Junior Red Cross Albums
Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, UC Berkeley

But for many Japanese, conquering a new frontier through agricultural production and civic infrastructure was incomplete. The land had to be beautified as well. Japanese made their mark on the western landscape through the construction of ornamental Japanese gardens in and out of the camps. Japanese immigrants maintained a limited number of gardens on the Pacific Coast prior to the war (see Golden Gate Park’s Japanese tea garden), but greatly expanded their geographic range when forced into camps as far east as Arkansas. Creating, maintaining and enjoying camp gardens utilized creative expressions and provided mental therapy for the thousands of confined individuals. The gardens asserted Japanese cultural heritage and improved incarcerees’ living conditions.

Block 26 Garden and Pond, Minidoka Relocation Center
Bain Family Collection at
Highlighting their prominence in camps, gardens play a central role in the memorialization of the camps today Surveys conducted by the National Park Service identified gardens as one of the “most evocative, symbolic and identifiable features associated with the [camps’] story.” Such memorials demonstrate and commemorate the ways in which incarcerated Japanese Americans staked claims in and ultimately expanded the American West. Moving beyond the confines of the Pacific Coast—even through forced eviction—led to greater claims to America and exemplified the growing prominence of eastward migration within and beyond the West. Japanese Americans physically changed the landscape and, in doing so, changed the West.

May 24, 2012

Western History Association annual conference travel award for graduate students

If you are a graduate student scheduled to present a paper at this year's Western History Association annual conference in Denver, Colorado, in October, the following announcement may be of interest to you:

The Trennert-Iverson Award 2012
Western History Association Conference Scholarship

 Two $500 annual awards will be given to graduate students, M.A. or Ph.D., to help lessen the burden of costs to attend the annual Western History Association conference. In addition, the cost of conference registration and tickets to the welcoming reception, the graduate student social hour and the Presidential luncheon will be included in the award. To be considered for this award send a letter of interest, a vita, and a letter of support from a faculty advisor to each member of the committee (see below).

Materials must be submitted to all three committee members to be considered. All submission materials must be received by the deadline.

Application Deadline: July 15, 2012

 2012 Trennert-Iverson Award Committee:

David Nesheim, Chadron State College (chair) MichaelLansing, Augsburg
College Ben Madley, Dartmouth College


David Nesheim
Communication and Social
Sciences Department
Chadron State College
1000 Main Street
Chadron, NE 69337

Michael J. Lansing
Dept. of History
CB 180
Augsburg College
2211 Riverside Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55454

Ben Madley
Department of History &
Native American Studies Program
Dartmouth College
37 North Main Street
Hanover, New Hampshire 03755


May 21, 2012

The New York Times Gets Religion—in the American West

By James B. Bennett

Last Wednesday morning I nearly choked on my coffee as I read the New York Times Op-Ed page. Whatever ongoing angst we in the Religion in the American West seminar may be feeling about the relevance and promise of our subject, The New York Times has gotten religion—religion in the American West, that is.

Image by Olimpia Zagnoli, in
It was a wonderful moment, the kind that we historians live for, when the events of the past can shed light on current controversies. In her "Nuns on the Frontier," Anne M. Butler, professor emerita of history at Utah State, notes that conflict between Roman Catholic sisters and their bishops has a long history in the United States. One need only look at the American West to see antecedents for the current tensions. While the male clergy were often reluctant to endure the hardships of mission and ministry in the nineteenth-century West, sisters answered the call to serve in the West. Women religious were the first Catholic presence in many western communities, establishing the often unacknowledged foundation on which male clergy were all too happy to step—a foundation built in the hardship of Western life and a foundation that, both literally and figuratively, enabled the male hierarchy to keep the mud and dust off their vestments.

As Butler notes, while the sisters adapted and accepted their work and suffering, they were not silent in their criticisms of the male hierarchy, whose expectations were often  unrealistic and whose intolerance for dissent was unrivaled. For any who would argue that the current tensions between American sisters and their bishops are a new phenomenon, the history of American West shows otherwise.

Much like Tisa Wenger noted in her review of Kathleen Holscher's Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico, which likewise notes the role of Catholic sisters at the center of controversy, Anne Butler makes clear how events grounded in very particular places in the West—from the wilds of Montana to the impoverished frontiers in Texas—do not remain in their specificity, but also come to shed light on and speak to larger issues of national significance.

Once again, and this time on the pages of the national press rather than in academic monographs, we see how stories of religion in the American West open us to new understandings of the past, further complicating our understandings of many aspects of the American religious experience, especially its gendered dimensions. But the promise does not stop there, as Butler points to ways that the past informs and complicates the rhetoric surrounding contemporary events.

I look forward to Anne Butler's forthcoming book Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920, a study that promises to enrich our conversation about religion in the American West. Butler's Op-Ed piece reminds us that the significance of our work and the contributions of our conversations are greater than internal academic conversations. We also have stories to tell and insights to offer as public intellectuals speaking to contemporary issues. What stories can you tell?

May 14, 2012

The Religion in the American West Syllabus Project (an occasional series)

Part II: Assignments

By Quincy D. Newell

Last time I checked in (in part 1 of this occasional series), I had tentatively articulated some learning outcomes for my Religion in the American West (RELI 3400) class.  I was getting ready to give the course some structure – divide it into units, add some assignments – and some content (actual readings, and films, and stuff).  The challenge was to shape all the stuff so that it would actually achieve the goals I set out in my learning outcomes.  So let’s review those outcomes, shall we?  I said: 
By the end of RELI 3400, students will…
1.    Describe the religious history of the American West by identifying key figures, groups, and events and linking these together in narrative fashion, paying particular attention to the role of religion.
2.    Recognize and analyze manifestations of religion that do not fit traditional (usually Christian/institutional) models, as they are found in the West, by identifying non-traditional modes of religious expression and appropriate forms of evidence for analysis.
3.    Assess the distinctiveness of religion in the American West by identifying factors (religious or otherwise) that distinguish the American West from other regions and evaluating what (if any) impact these factors have had on religion in the West and how (if at all) religion has affected the impact of these factors on societies and cultures (ecosystems?) in the West.

Now, please keep in mind that this was a DRAFT.  Right now, these outcomes are too wordy.  And I’m not sure they totally express what I mean to say.  But for now, they’ll do.

As it turns out, staring at these outcomes was not particularly helpful for figuring out assignments (with one major exception, about which I’ll write much more below).  This is an upper-level class, so my usual practice is to assign papers instead of giving exams.  (And, the class will be small enough that papers will be manageable.)  The assignments thus suggest a structure of three or four units, each concluding with a paper, but they don’t help me much in figuring out what content to put in the class. 

For content, I started thinking about some of the conversations our seminar has had, and about Brett Hendrickson’s post last fall, and some of the points that really resonated with me.  What did I want my students to be thinking about and writing about? 

The first thing that occurred to me was that I want my students to do some sort of analysis of a “non-traditional” religious group/event/something – Burning Man, maybe, or curanderismo.  Something that doesn’t always qualify as “religion” in Judeo-Christian terms.  This will get directly at outcome #2.

I also want them to write something analyzing the relationship between religion and the land (or landscape) in the West, probably looking at a dispute over land.  It’s likely that this will also get at outcome #2, but since it will almost certainly bring in the federal government, too, it may also get us to outcome #3.

Finally, I decided I wanted a paper about transnationalism, too.  The fluidity of American borders is particularly important to think about these days, and I want my students to wrestle with that idea.  So this paper will get at outcome #3.

These topics started to suggest units to me: innovations, locations, and migrations.

But none of these papers really help with outcome #1, the synthesis.  For this goal, I dreamed up a different assignment.  I can’t decide whether this is a good idea, so please weigh in with your comments!  Here’s the scoop: as a class, we will produce a digital project, a website hosted by the University of Wyoming, that tells the (or really, a) story of religion in the American West.  So, as a class, before spring break, we will discuss how we want to organize this website: Should we break the story we tell up by region?  By time period?  By theme?  By something else I haven’t thought of?  I will ask consultants from the relevant units at the university to join us for the debate, so that they can help us think through the technical aspects of the choices we’re making.

Once that decision is made, the class will be divided into groups and each group assigned a section (region/time period/theme/etc.).  Their first task, as a group, will be to research their section and come up with a prioritized list of people, places, events, etc., that they think deserve an “encyclopedia entry.”  After meeting with me, each group member will write one encyclopedia entry, which will be hyperlinked to their group’s section of the website.  Their encyclopedia entry will be peer-reviewed within their group, but each student will be individually graded on this assignment.

As a group, students will have to come up with an introduction to their section of the website, synthesizing their section of the story.  This will take the form of a short film.  I haven’t decided yet whether I want them to do live-action films, or use a website like to do animated films, or whether any form is okay.  I decided on a film because it will give us something we can post to the website that can convey a great deal of information without giving site visitors yet another thing to read. I frequently have students do class presentations, and I am often frustrated by the ways in which students in the audience are distracted by elements unrelated to content: how presenters dressed, or how they behaved when they weren’t speaking, and so on.  Using films, I think, will eliminate these distractions.  I’m not sure, though, what new distractions it might introduce.  (This is one argument, I think, for making all the students use the same kind of film and making the process as simple as possible.  Ultimately, I’m not interested in producing filmmakers – I want to use the films as a tool for practicing thinking skills and learning content.)

Right now, the digital project starts with a week before spring break and then (once unit 3 is finished) takes up the last three weeks or so of the semester.  But, as I said above, I haven’t decided whether it’s actually a good idea.  What do you think?  Am I allowing myself to be seduced by the lure of new(ish) technology?  Or might this work as a learning experience (for the kind of learning I’m intending)?

May 7, 2012

Book(s) of the Month:

Janet Reitman, Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion 

Hugh B. Urban, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion 

Review by Jim Bennett

Of late, I have been pondering twentieth century California and the fertile ground it offered for incubating and nurturing a wide variety of religious movements in the twentieth century. Already, two of the books reviewed in our still young Book of the Month describe various dimensions of this religious fertility, especially in Southern California: Matthew Sutton's Aimee Semple McPherson and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sun Belt. Conservative Protestant growth and innovation is an important part the story of religion in California over the last century, spanning from Holiness denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene and the emergence of Pentecostalism to groups such as Calvary Chapel and Vineyard Christian Fellowship that emerged in the second half of the century.

But religious creativity in California also extended well beyond these Christian denominations, suggesting a spiritual hothouse akin to that a hundred years earlier along the Western edge of the Second Great Awakening. Many twentieth century new religious movements, even if they did not start in California, experienced significant growth by (re)locating in California, from the Theosophist community in Point Loma, to David Berg's The Family, to Jim Jones' People's Temple. As early as 1935, according to Philip Jenkins, commentators were flagging southern California as the epicenter of the "cult racket" (Jenkins, Mystics and Messiahs, p. 11).

I was reminded of all this with the publication last summer of two new books on Scientology, a tradition whose secrecy and defensiveness has made it difficult for scholars to research and write about. Taken together, Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) and Hugh Urban's, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), provide much useful information for those who teach—or would like to teach—about Scientology and its contributions to the complexity of both the region's and the nation's religious landscape.

Reitman is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and her book is an expansion of a March 2006 article that appeared in that magazine. Her book is an engrossing and easy to read journey through the history of Scientology, touching on enough of the popular controversies—from questions about L. Ron Hubbard's background to Tom Cruise's involvement and the motives and methods of current president David Miscavige—to appeal to a popular audience. But Reitman goes well beneath the sensationalist headlines, myths, and rumors that shape most people's impressions of Scientology. This is also a deeply researched volume. Reitman has examined vast amounts of Scientology materials, taken time to review what scholarly materials exist, as well as conducting extensive interviews to paint a much broader picture of Scientology than previously available. The details prove helpful for those seeking a deeper understanding of how Scientology operates in its various organizations and orders. She also illumines changes in the organization, especially as leadership shifted from Hubbard to Miscavige, that have created a movement more isolated and secretive than the organization's formative decades. The strength of the book rests in the stories she tells and the narratives she reveals, many of them quite wrenching, rather than offering radically new interpretive frameworks. Even as Reitman's tone is more nuanced and her treatment and profile more even-handed than most accounts, this book will not do much to counter popular skepticism about Scientology.

Hugh Urban's TheChurch of Scientology takes a somewhat different approach, dealing with larger theoretical questions that Scientology raises about the study of religion in general and the definition of religion in the United States more specifically. Aware of the challenges and repercussions of writing about Scientology, Urban is less interested in the juicy controversies that Reitman tackles than the scholarly questions ethat frame his study. While Reitman calls Scientology "America's Most Secretive Religion" in her subtitle, it is Urban who is the expert on secrecy in religion and brings his knowledge of esotericism as a category of comparative religious studies to bear on his analysis of Scientology. Like Reitman, Urban moves in a chronological fashion, tracing the emergence of Scientology as a religion under Hubbard's guidance, with a strong emphasis on how Hubbard guided Scientology into the category of religion even as that classification has remained highly contested by many outsiders, both within and beyond the United States (The IRS did not recognize Scientology as a religion entitled to tax-exempt status until 1993).

Neither text argues that Scientology is specifically a religion of the American West (clearly neither author shares our angst about such questions!). Indeed, Scientology is not nor has it ever been a practice exclusive to the American West. Nonetheless, in both accounts, the West is very much present. Hubbard himself frames his own narrative largely around experiences in the West, from an early childhood on the western plains and claiming friendships with Native Americans, to naval service in the Pacific that oriented his religious thinking towards religious traditions of the East. Urban's account emphasizes the Cold War context out of which Scientology emerged, a mindset and material reality which profoundly shaped the ethos of Southern California where defense contractors were among the region's largest employers. For Hubbard, several of these interests fused during the time he spent in the home of a Cal Tech Rocket Scientist who also had a deep interest in the occult. Reitman likewise shows how heavily Hubbard built his religion around the culture of celebrity that was Hollywood, a conflicted relationship that remains at the center of popular conceptions of Scientology.

All of which is not try to force either of these immensely useful volumes into categories where they do not fit. Still, especially as we consider the last century of history of religion in the American West, these volumes on the particular tradition of Scientology contribute to broader conversations about critical issues that emerge in other stories of religion in the American West. To offer just one example, the questions Urban raises intersect in intriguing ways with those raised by Tisa Wenger's We Have a Religion about who gets to define religion with what consequences. When attentiveness to religion in the American West brings together such diverse experiences and books, surely we know that we are in a space that is creating conversations worth having!