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USA: Indigenous and Japanese American Activists Unite to Fight the Power

Wednesday 20 July 2022, by siawi3


Indigenous and Japanese American Activists Unite to Fight the Power

The new documentary “Manzanar, Diverted” explores the relationship between Indigenous and Japanese American communities impacted by environmental racism and human rights abuses.

by Ed Rampell

July 16, 2022

8:00 AM

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Pooja Zopari Tripathi

Photo: Three generations of the Yamamoto family return for the Manzanar Pilgrimage and visit the Arai Fish Pond on April 29, 2017.

Ann Kaneko’s hard-hitting documentary Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust tells the stories of Indigenous and Japanese American communities in the internment camp of Manzanar in California, the environmental disaster that unites them, and their ongoing resistance against human rights abuses and environmental racism.

Kaneko combines archival footage and photos, much of it in black and white, with original interviews in color. The first interview subject is Kathy Jefferson-Bancroft, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation. Bancroft and other Indigenous sources discuss what is now known as the Owens Valley in California’s Eastern Sierra, located between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the White and Inyo Mountains. Indigenous people, or Nüümü, called this lush region Payahuunadü, which translates to “Land of the Flowing Water.” Native Americans reportedly flourished in the fertile valley, but by 1859, miners, farmers, and ranchers arrived with herds of cattle.

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Creative Commons

According to Manzanar, Diverted, from 1862 to 1863, the U.S. Army killed hundreds of Indigenous people who were exiled from their ancestral homeland. In 1863, the U.S. Cavalry moved about 1,000 Native Americans in a forced march to Fort Tejon, 250 miles south.

Sue Kunitomi Embrey and other onscreen sources recount another forced removal involving Manzanar. But this time, Japanese American evictees are taken by bus and other vehicles to be imprisoned in Manzanar, which became the first “relocation center.” At its peak, there were 11,000 human beings imprisoned in an internment camp known as the Manzanar War Relocation Center, surrounded by barbed wire, sentry towers, and armed military captors.

In one of the documentary’s most poignant original interviews, Beverly Newell of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone reservation laments that the forced relocation and incarceration of the Japanese Americans “was like watching another vanquishment. What a terrible way to treat people. They did the same thing to us.”

This leads to the third plotline of Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust: environmental disaster. Kaneko recounts the water wars between 1913 and 1924, waged by Los Angeles capitalists, speculators, and the Department of Water and Power against Owens Valley. During these years, water was relocated to communities hundreds of miles away and, as a result, the 110-square-mile Owens Lake was drained.

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Julio Martinez

Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, shows off her Owens Valley Committee sticker at a Council on American-Islamic Relations meeting at Manzanar on April 28, 2019.

In Manzanar, Diverted ex-internees such as Embrey unhappily remember “the dust in our eyes” at the concentration camp. In the clips, Embrey, who had respiratory issues, repeatedly coughs, and Kathy Jefferson-Bancroft, who was born and raised in Owens Valley and currently monitors the dust mitigation project being undertaken by the Los Angeles DWP, complains of health problems caused by the dust.

The film shows how the Japanese Americans, Indigenous people, and even some white farmers. led by women crossed racial lines and united in a water protector coalition to, quite literally, fight the power—that is, the Department of Water and Power.

Kaneko and her team of mostly women researchers and filmmakers are to be commended for creating a wide-ranging, well-constructed, tragic-yet-inspirational story that artfully conveys its intricate subject matter in a tightly packed fifty-two minutes.

Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust will be broadcast on July 18 on the PBS program POV (check local listings) and will begin streaming the same day at

L.A.-based film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”