Poet Kaia Sand helps keep Portland’s troubled history from fading into invisibility

Poet Kaia Sand, Photo by Ken Hawkins

Story By Carmel Bentley

Contributing writer
How do I notice
what I don’t notice?

How do I notice
what I don’t know
I don’t notice?

This poem, which begins on the first page of “Remember to Wave,” (TinFish Press, 2010) by Portland poet Kaia Sand, challenges both author and reader to acknowledge what is no longer visible — entire communities removed from sight.

“Remember to Wave” began in 2008 as a tour of Portland Expo Center, Delta Park, and the Stockyards Commerce Center, a project funded by a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
“I wanted to create a dynamic form for thinking about our local political history and its connections to the present,” Sand says. “I wanted to create a participatory experience as well as words on a page.”

She developed the tour, which she still leads free of charge, by walking the area alone every day for a month. She wanted to feel the wind coming off the Columbia Slough, to hear the bird calls mingle with the roar of the 18-wheelers on Marine Drive, to smell the wet grass and see the rain clouds swell on the horizon, to get a sense of the place where thousands of people had lived not long ago: Japanese Americans awaiting deportation to internment camps and shipyard workers no longer needed after World War II.

Sand has made it her work to bear witness to their lives and stories. To remember to wave. Out of the tour grew the book.

“The title came to me while I was watching the home movies made by William Chaney in the 1940s,” Sand says. “A line of people, all dressed up, was standing by the Grand Coulee Dam. Everyone was waving at the camera except one man. Finally, the woman beside him nudged him with her elbow and he waved. It made me think that sometimes it takes an effort to wave, to reach out, to acknowledge another person. That we must be reminded to make that effort.

“I grapple with the relationship of poetry and politics,” Sand explains. “Because poetry is marginalized in our society, it provides a place to speak out about the imbalances and injustices of power.”

A longtime Oregonian raised in Salem, she moved to the East Coast in 1998, living first in Washington, D.C. and then in southern Maryland, where she taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. There she met fellow teacher Lucille Clifton, a former poet laureate of Maryland state, who had a big influence on Sand’s thinking. “She told me about the stones that had marked slave graves,” Sand recalls, “later removed and used for other purposes. Clifton kept thinking about where those markers were. Had they been used to construct the nearby statehouse? Could she see them without knowing that she was seeing them?

“That got me thinking about all of these histories that I have a responsibility toward, such as people being incarcerated because of ethnicity, or class. The built environment will never communicate those histories to me: what is built comes from places of power and will emphasize that power, which makes the history of people without power difficult to see.”
Returning to Oregon in 2005, Sand began to learn about north Portland after seeing the Rose City Rollers compete at the Portland Expo Center. Looking at the open fields, the parking lots, the exhibit halls, she was intrigued by a history that had been erased.

In “Remember to Wave,” Sand reflects on the events that happened in this area: at the Expo Center, Japanese Americans were held against their will during World War II; the City of Vanport, “quick built” on a floodplain by Henry J. Kaiser for the families of workers who worked in his shipyards, was flooded in 1948. The places where these people worked and played, loved and bore children, aged and died, were gone. Evidence of their lives had disappeared without a trace.

Today people looking at Portland’s Old Town and Chinatown wouldn’t know that the area was Nihonmachi, or Japantown, until 1942. (The original Chinatown lay south of Burnside.) Established in the 1890s, it was bounded by Burnside, NW Glisan, the Willamette River and Sixth Avenue and contained apartments, laundries, hotels, photo studios, shops, medical offices and meeting houses.

The staff of the Evacuazette, a semi-weekly newspaper produced by Japenese Americans on forced internement at the Assembly Center. Photo courtesy of the Oregonian & The Oregon Historic Society

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 making the Pacific Coast a military “theater of operation” and authorizing the Army to evacuate Japanese Americans from the area and deport them to internment camps.

Between May 2 and May 5, 1942, Japanese Americans in the Portland metropolitan area were taken to the Portland International Livestock Exposition Center, renamed the Portland Assembly Center. Japantown ceased to exist.

Sand quotes the directive that each Japanese American family received: “The size and number of packages is limited to that which can be carried by the individual or family group. No pets of any kind will be permitted. No personal items and no household goods will be shipped to the Assembly Center.”

Commuters who board the MAX at the Expo Center station would have no idea that thousands of Japanese Americans from Portland, Gresham, Boring and elsewhere in Oregon lived in the spaces now labeled as Halls A, B, and C of what is now the Portland Expo Center. There they slept and lived for four months, awaiting transport to internment camps in northern California, Idaho and Wyoming. Before it was emptied on Sept. 10, 1942, the population of the Portland Assembly Center reached 3,582.

Although fans of the Rose City Rollers may know that the derby arena was once a livestock exhibition area, they probably would not know it was used as a giant dormitory for incarcerated families — simply by covering the stinking cattle manure with plywood, the air alive with swarming flies.

Sand points out that those same old-growth wood posts seen in ’40s vintage photographs of the Portland Assembly Center Mess Hall are the same pillars that today interrupt garden displays or rows of campers at Expo Center trade shows.

“People gathered for meals at the sound of a whistle, eating among thousands of clattering forks and spoons, flypaper thick with flies dangling overhead. They waited in long lines to do laundry, stacking folded clothes on newspapers spread on the floor. With canvas doors hung from rope stretched across the front of their living stalls and no roofs above their head save the steep ceiling of the massive hall, they tried to sleep among the chatter of radios and breathing and coughing of thousands of others.”

Provided with typewriters and a mimeograph machine, internees published the Evacuazette, which contained news about life in the assembly center. That is, births, deaths, celebrations—they were barred from writing news about World War II.

In her poem that begins, “named in a word or so,” Sand has pulled announcements from the Evacuazette and fashioned them into a written hand that waves across six decades:

named in a word or so
now I know you were here (are where?)

hello baby boy Shimizu born July, 6, 1942 8:42 PM 7 pounds 7 ounces; hello baby girl Onichi, July 10, 1942 9:08 AM (no weight reported); hello baby boy Yoshihara, July 21, 1942, 2:54 PM, 6 pounds 2 ounces; hello baby boy Kawamoto, July 21, 1942, 10:03 PM, 6 pounds 5 ounces; hello baby boy Okamoto, August 15, 1942, 7:20 PM 7 pounds 12 ounces

hello Boy Scout Troup 123, Explorer Troup 623

hello ‘new arrivals,’ ‘evacuees,’ ‘colonists’; hello Chain Gang Baseball Team, hello Kats Nakayama, homerun hitter & electrician foreman

hello Albert Oyama, ping pong champion, Hito ‘Heat’ Heyamoto, Jumbo Murakami, grandslammer the Old Timers, the Bachelors, the Farmers, the Townies, the Dishwashers, the Fujii baseball teams the Wapato Wolves & Country Sister softball teams

hello first aid givers, talent show emcees, chicken pox sufferers, diphtheria immunizers, calisthenics teachers, cake bakers, kindergarten teachers, model airplane builders, chatty neighbors

hello Zombie day dancers, sugar beet pickers Issei, Nisei, Sansei leaders

hello. hello. hello

hello Midori Baker, separated from your parents, carceral childhood, sixty years later and I worry about you

hello Akira Simura 6 years old & dead on July 10, 1942

hello to the cook on break in the sun ‘too near’ the fence, suddenly shot by guards, the blood on your white coat another man remembers, wondering what happened, so do I

hello to the journalist watching the Jantzen Beach ferris wheel lights from the Evacuazette balcony, ‘knowing that is outside,’ hello Sunday visitors speaking at the barbed fence

hello Michi Yasunaga & James Wakagawa betrothed June 29, 1942

hello Madame Fifi Suzette, talent show impresario, hello Chiseo Shoji, cartooning the flyswatters, the toe-stompers, the clog-clompers

bound for Minidoka, Heart Mountain

hello Rose Katagiri, Evacuazette typist bound for Tule Lake June 10, 1942, the Katagiri family & Akagis & Moriokas & Yamaguchis & Watanabes bound for Tule Lake, bound, carceral

there are so many of us on this planet

carceral & elsewhere, some 300 miles south by new highways, Tule Lake a land still strung with barbed wire near petroglyphs where recently & and anciently Modoc people peopled the land

hello Clara Yokota, your name written in stone
now I know you were there (are where?)
named in a word or so
hello Betty Yamashiro
there are so many of us on this planet

some of us at Tule Lake, 1942 43 44 45 1946
some who said ‘no’ and then ‘no’ to ‘loyalty’ oaths
imperiled, one has refusal
: hunger, to strike with
: a name, to withhold
or utter, an autograph
a tag in stone
personal effects

As Japanese Americans were being processed at the Assembly Center, Henry J. Kaiser was negotiating with the federal government to buy land where he could construct housing for the workers who had come from all over the United States to work in the shipyards on both sides of the Columbia River. Construction of the town, to be known as Vanport, began in the fall of 1942, and the first units were occupied by December. Since it was considered temporary housing, the work was never inspected by the city of Portland or Multnomah County. The city was finished in August of 1943 and by November of that year it housed 39,000 people. It was the second-largest city in Oregon.

Many of the occupants were African American. Prior to 1926, the number of Blacks living in Oregon was kept small by an article in the Constitution of Oregon that stated “no free negro, or mulatto, not resident in the state at the time of the adoption of this Constitution shall come, reside or be within this State …” Just prior to the war, 2,565 blacks lived in Portland; in 1944, 6,000 lived in the city of Vanport alone; and by 1946 more than 15,000 lived in the Portland metropolitan area.

Vanport contained a post office, five grade schools, six nursery schools, three fire stations, a movie theater, a library, a 130-bed infirmary, a police station, ten icehouses, several commercial centers, and five community centers. The largest public housing project in the United States, it was managed by the federal Public Housing Administration during World War II and then by the Housing Authority of Portland.

After the war ended, many of the families who lived in Vanport and had worked in the shipyards stayed on, some because they couldn’t afford to live elsewhere or because, in the case of the African Americans, many landlords wouldn’t rent to them. By July of 1946, the population of the city of Vanport had dropped to 15,000.
Each family was given a Resident Handbook that advised the renters to “keep it readily accessible, it may prove helpful in time of emergency.”
Sand writes:

rules and regulations
you live

any alterations
are not allowed

in emergency
you take care

you take


take care

you take care

rules &

take care

There was heavy snowfall in the winter of 1947-48 and the weather stayed cold. The week before Memorial Day, more rain fell than any time since 1894, followed by a warming trend. The officials of the Housing Authority of Portland met the Friday before the holiday weekend to consider whether to evacuate the city. Unable to agree, they decided to wait. At 8 a.m. on Sunday, May 30, 1948, an employee of the housing authority distributed fliers to all of the apartments stating that “barring unforeseen developments, Vanport is safe.” Eight hours later, the dike broke.

Thanks to the slow-rising water, the calm of the residents, and the rescue efforts of the Oregon National Guard and the Red Cross, only 15 people drowned. At least, that was the number of bodies recovered; other people were never accounted for. Though the federal government provided trailers for temporary housing, most of the victims were taken into private homes. National media covered the disaster, and assistance for the displaced families came from throughout the United States, England, Scotland and the Netherlands.

Remember to Wave acknowledges a third community, buried and out of sight, 90 miles east of the Japanese Assembly Center and the city of Vanport. Celilo Falls, where Chinookan and other indigenous peoples fished and gathered for thousands of years, was flooded on March 10, 1957, when the water behind The Dalles Dam — built to provide electricity for the Portland metropolitan area — rose and covered the ancient fishing grounds.

Sand’s poem reminds the reader to look under that water and remember the native peoples who gathered and fished there, to consider them in the artificial light that drowns the darkness of our homes and streets.

elsewhere, ninety miles upstream, the river is
grand it it’s gorge where inside is Celilo, now
fifty years past its smothering, Dalles Dam
backing up the river over the waterfall

where millennia of people gathered, dipnets
& trading, where now people are gathering,
demanding the dam be breached, and a boy stands
near railroad tracks near the river, and he
conjures answers and grandness, what else do
you need

to know, he asks. when your hand reaches for
food among others, he answers, take back

your hand if another is wrinkled. wait. what
else can I tell you? sturgeon are in that river,
old and low in holes. as the light lessens

swells of people feast. I take my seat near a
pear orchardist, this is his transition year of
loneliness, every year

a transition, lonely toward so much knowledge,
as it I could remember dipnets & trading

elsewhere, ninety miles downstream & then
upstream another river more miles at the Rose
Garden arena in the city where I live & write
by light

made by the river & its losses, a man holds
a sturgeon caught in the near & toxic river,
its side slit & red gills flashing. the man
with his fish

talks to a man scalping tickets to a Rod
Stewart concert, each recalling

fishing at one dam or another as boys, a walk

light flashing near them, Celilo a dammed-up
waterfall more than 90 miles upstream.

For the tour, Sand created poems and artifacts that represent the experiences of the people who once lived here: copies of haiku written by interned Japanese Americans, the written instructions from the Housing Authority of Portland to the residents of Vanport, a copy of Elizabeth Woody’s poem “She-Who-Watches, the Names are Prayer.” Sand carries them in an old, battered, clasp-locking suitcase, suggesting the suitcases that Japanese Americans might have carried.
Her tour begins at the Expo Center MAX station, underneath the torii created by Valerie Otani and dedicated when the station opened on May 1, 2004. In Japanese culture the torii, or large timber gates, are used to mark places of reverence and significance. Three thousand strips of metal are suspended between the two timbers, replicas of the ID tags the Japanese Americans were required to wear at the Portland Assembly Center.

Sand unrolls a scroll that she stitched together with colorful thread, their loose ends hanging like fringe down one side, and states:
USER TO SUPPLY LOCK. Prisoner to supply shackles. Barbed wire. Dog to supply leash. Convicted to supply stenographer. Citizen to supply amnesia. Child to supply carbon emissions. Fish to supply  lure. Chickens to supply fox. Raccoon. Eggs to supply opossum. Citizen to supply amnesia. Citizen to supply personal electronic devices. Headache to supply exhaust. City to supply benzene. Herons  to supply PCB. Tenement to supply flood. Prisoner to supply censor.  Dipnetters to supply dam. Citizen, user, taker, sweetheart, raccoon. Come. Take good care. Let’s walk.

She guides her group past the Portland Expo Center, where she stops to place haiku against the exhibit halls where the Japanese Americans were once held. On Marine Drive, she asks the group to look east and reflect on the spot that was once Celilo Falls, as she reads Woody’s poem.

The group pauses in front of the Stockyards Commerce Center and treks down Force Avenue to Force Lake, where a sign far out in the water warns people not to eat the fish they catch because of the danger of PCB contamination. Sand leads the tour across a wide field to the MAX Vanport Station, the only remaining reference to a city of 39,000 people that was once located here.

In “Remember to Wave,” Sand asks: “Do we need our ruins visible? How much can we experience the past through interpretive signs? I carry old maps, but sometimes the space seems illegible because reclaimed wetlands and construction changed the shape of the land. I cross-check books and oral histories and photographs. I imagine. The birds and race-cars and boat shows and roller derby bouts. The blue-doored, white blocks heavy with possessions. The prison-past, the flooded city.”

“Remember to Wave” is due out this month, and Sand will celebrate the publication with readings and a tour. Sand is also the author of “Interval” (Edge Books, 2004) and the co-author (with husband, Jules Boykoff) of “Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry and Public Space” (Palm Press, 2008). With the assistance of another grant from The Regional Arts Culture Council, she is currently developing the Happy Valley Project, an investigation of housing foreclosures that she will present as a multimedia tour.

Japanese American Internment timeline

• Dec. 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor attacked by the Japanese navy
• Dec. 11, 1941: Pacific coast of the United States is declared a “theater of operation,” which put it under military control and authorizes the U.S. Army to remove Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans against their will
• March 27, 1942: a curfew is declared, prohibiting Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals to be out of their homes between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.
• April 28, 1942: evacuation orders are sent to Japanese Americans and nationals in the Portland metropolitan area
• May 2 – 5, 1942: Japanese Americans and nationals are transported to the Portland International Livestock Exhibition Center, renamed the Portland Assembly Center
• Sept. 10, 1942: the last of the Japanese Americans and nationals are sent to internment camps in Tule Lake, California, Minidoka, Idaho and Heart Mountain, Wyo.

Vanport Flood Timeline

• Aug. 1, 1942: The U. S. Maritime Commission agrees to allow Henry J. Kaiser to build housing for the families of the workers in his shipyards on property it owns in a floodplain on what is now Delta Park. The community is named the City of Vanport.
• Dec. 12, 1942: The first housing units are occupied.
• March, 1943: Vanport has 10,000 residents.
• Aug. 12, 1943: The construction of Vanport is complete. It has a post office, five grade schools, six nursery schools, three fire stations, a movie theater, five community centers, a library, a 130-bed infirmary, a police station, ten icehouses, and several commercial buildings. It is the largest public housing project in the United States.
• November 1943: Vanport’s population reaches 39,000 residents, making it the second largest city in Oregon. The only states not represented in the city are Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine and Delaware.
• May, 1945: Germany surrenders and in July the population of Vanport drops to 15,000.
• May, 1948: 6,000 of the original 9,942 housing units remain in Vanport. The population is 18,700, 75% white and 25% African American.
• Sunday, May 30, 1948: a dike breaks and Vanport is flooded. Fifteen people drown and many bodies are never found. Everyone is displaced. The city of Vanport is destroyed.


7 responses to “Poet Kaia Sand helps keep Portland’s troubled history from fading into invisibility

  1. Here’s some history many Japanese Americans find troubling:

    Remember that many were young kids then, and don’t remember what it was really like.

  2. Pingback: “Remember to Wave” makes a splash in Portland « PoMotion: production of poetry

  3. Pingback: Vendor Leo Rhodes shares a common bond, poetry with Oregon Poet Laureate « For those who can’t afford free speech

  4. It’s much easier to udnretsnad when you put it that way!

  5. I saw the1948 Vanport flood from a vantage point on Killingsworth Ave in northeast Portland. I was seven at the time.Since I was forbidden to cross Killingsworth, I did. I climbed the hill where the railroad tracks stood and looked down at the flood with discarded dolls floating in the water.I never knew the history of Vanport, but I saw the flood.

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