June 12, 2019

The Trump Administration’s plan to use Fort Sill, Oklahoma as a concentration camp for immigrant and refugee-seeking children is just the latest in a long legacy of violent incarceration and family separation at that site.

Over 700 Japanese Americans were incarcerated there during WWII. One inmate, Kanesaburo Oshima, a Japanese immigrant and father of 11, was shot and killed trying to escape.

But Fort Sill’s history of trauma also includes a Native American boarding school where Comanche, Apache, Caddo, Kiowa, Delaware, Wichita, Navajo, and other Indigenous children were separated from their families, their culture, and their language.

And it served as a Prisoner of War camp for members of the Chiricahua Apache tribe who were forcibly relocated from the Southwest in 1894. The Apache leader Geronimo was among the 300-plus members of the tribe incarcerated there. He later passed away at Fort Sill in 1909 and was laid to rest there.

Fort Sill is not an anomaly, but it is a reminder of the ongoing violences of settler colonialism, racism, and xenophobia that have defined far too much of our nation’s history.

Fort Sill was one of more than 70 sites where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII. But it’s not the only one that has been revived to enable the current crisis of family detention and separation. Jakelin Caal, one of six children who have died in Border Patrol custody in less than a year, was at Lordsburg, New Mexico, another former Japanese American incarceration site.

Meanwhile, the Dilley, Texas “family residential center,” the largest family detention site in the country, is only 40 miles away from the former Crystal City concentration camp. This past March, Japanese Americans and Japanese Peruvians gathered there to draw attention to the alarming parallels between past and present.

Systems of incarceration—past and present—are often more vast and hidden than we realize. This is a deliberate tactic to keep us from recognizing these systems as part of a larger historical pattern.

What we’re calling a border crisis today is not just happening at the border. Family detention centers are in our own backyards, mass deportation flights are taking off from our local airports, and immigrants are disappearing inside the for-profit prison industry

“We need to stay vigilant and we need to be showing up at these places in protest,” says Densho Executive Director Tom Ikeda. “No one showed up for Japanese Americans during WWII, but we can and we must break that pattern now.”

Sites like Fort Sill, Lordsburg, and Dilley need to be permanently closed, not recycled to inflict more harm. And we must also acknowledge that every single one of these sites exists on stolen land, and the majority of Central American migrants currently detained are Indigenous people.

The battle we’re fighting today started in 1492, not 1942.


By Densho Communications Coordinator Nina Wallace and Communications/Public Engagement Director Natasha Varner

[Header image: Fort Sill, Oklahoma Historical Society (4794, W. P. Campbell Collection, OHS)]