SCOTUS has shown poor judgment before

Remembering Japanese internment on a journey to Heart Mountain as Roe falls.

 

Thunderstorms had been expected overnight, but as we drove past the Tetons, the sky was clearing, leaving blue skies dappled with high cirrus clouds. David, my partner, and I were visiting national parks with our two kids. We sped through Wyoming, spotting deer and antelope along the way, and even pulled up alongside other motorists to peer past clumps of snow into the woods at a grizzly family napping off the side of the highway.

It was somewhere on this two-lane highway in Wyoming that I learned about the new Supreme Court ruling. A few days earlier, the court had ruled that Maine couldn’t exclude religious schools from its private school voucher program. Then the court decided that New Yorkers had a right to carry concealed weapons. On this day in late June, however, word of the impending ruling on Roe v. Wade had already been leaked. We knew it was coming.

Courtesy of Noriko Nakada
 Even when you know something is coming, its size and scope can catch you by surprise, much the way the Tetons did. 

Two days earlier, as we neared Grand Teton National Park, I had expected the peaks to tower impressively. Still, after hours in the car surrounded by picturesque landscapes, rivers and waterfalls, when we turned a bend and the mountains were fully unveiled, their size and magnificence caught me by surprise. The thin air leaked in and out of my lungs as I gazed at the peaks’ jagged beauty.

We had been anticipating conservative rulings from the nation’s highest court since 2016, when Sen. Mitch McConnell blocked President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. Still, that morning, when the white text on black background appeared on my screen: “Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade,” my breath turned short and shallow. Even when you know something is coming, its size and scope can catch you by surprise, much the way the Tetons did. We continued driving across Wyoming. Without any cell service, that breaking news remained on my screen. 

This wasn’t the first time the U.S. Supreme Court had shown poor judgment.

We were headed to a part of the country I had never been to before, driving there to visit Heart Mountain. We were already “close” to it when we were in Jackson, right? What was another night, another five-hour drive?

The Tetons disappeared behind us as we drove into sprawling green valleys, threaded by rivers. Red rock formations jutted up beside us; the fourth-grader woke from a nap, asking, “Where are we?”

“We are still in Wyoming,” I said, glancing at my phone, “Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade” still stuck on my screen.

I watched the shifting landscape and kept breathing. I grew up east of the Cascades, in the high desert of central Oregon. These small towns and mountain landscapes were familiar to me. Just as Mount Bachelor, Broken Top and the Three Sisters had been part of my landscape, the Japanese internment had been part of the thin mountain air I breathed. But the towns in this part of the country were unknown to me, and I was born a year after Roe. Living in a country without secured legal abortion rights was new for me.

Courtesy of Noriko Nakada

In some families, parents don’t talk about Executive Order 9066, which triggered the removal and incarceration of 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans. Instead, their descendants learned about the Japanese removal from textbooks or college lectures, or when, 40 years after it ended, the U.S. government paid $20,000 in reparations to each incarcerated individual. But my dad made sure we knew about it through the stories he told us and the books on our shelves. Black-and-white photographs of Japanese American families sitting on piles of luggage, their children wearing tags with family numbers, revealed the government’s power to disrupt our lives. And some parents don’t talk about abortion, either, but my Catholic mother had made it clear that abortion should be safe and legal. She hoped my sister and I would never have to make a decision like that, but if we did, it would be our choice to make.

As we neared Cody, Wyoming, a summer storm rolled in. Fat raindrops dotted the windshield, temporarily clearing away the bugs. Finally, my cellphone had a signal, and I refreshed my feed. A new image emerged on my screen: a map of the United States showing which states had trigger laws to end legal abortion if Roe v. Wade was overturned. I was there, in the middle of that map, surrounded by deeply red states with trigger laws: Utah, Wyoming, Idaho. We passed “Let’s Go Brandon” signs and billboards displaying dubious “facts” about fetal heart development. The sky brightened and the rain stopped falling. When we pulled into our hotel, dead bugs still dotted the windshield.

The next morning, we drove out of Cody toward the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center under banks of gray clouds. It was cool, but gusts of wind made it colder. My dad was 11 when he and his family were incarcerated here in 1942. I don’t know what the weather was like on the August day when they arrived, but I know they had to walk to their quarters in Block 2 at the far corner of the camp. They had to trudge uphill, pushing my grandmother in her wheelchair. The heat must have been oppressive that day, but maybe the wind brought some relief. There are no longer any barracks here, just fields of green.

I don’t know what the weather was like on the August day when they arrived, but I know they had to walk to their quarters in Block 2 at the far corner of the camp. 

Courtesy of Noriko Nakada

We got out of the car and stared into the distance. Heart Mountain stared back. It was hard to imagine a community of over 10,000 living here 80 years ago. The brick chimney from the hospital loomed high above the landscape, but without the interpretive center and historical markers, no one driving past would know the history of this land. Without the hard work of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, nature would have taken this land back entirely, filling it with grass and wildflowers. 

On the honor roll, we found the names of my uncles who had served in World War II. We walked the dirt path and peered through spyglasses to find locations of a root cellar, the hospital, the swimming pool, all now overgrown with sagebrush. A few more wind gusts sent us indoors to the interpretive center, where one of the docents introduced a small group of us to the self-guided tour. When I told him my father was interned here, he quickly located the Nakada family #10561 among the names of all those interned at Heart Mountain. The names were all there, on the honor roll and in the records; my family had lived here, even though the barracks and mess halls, the bathhouses and recreation buildings no longer remained.

Soon, we were back on the road, speeding away from Heart Mountain and toward Glacier National Park in Montana. The landscape shifted around us, and I thought of my father and his family leaving Heart Mountain in the summer of 1943. The winter had been too hard on my grandmother, who had multiple sclerosis. They requested a transfer to the Gila Rivers Relocation Center in Arizona, hoping for easier winters. How was that drive from Wyoming to Arizona for a group of seven Japanese Americans, speeding across a country that hated them? As we drove from Wyoming and into Montana, I was alert. Maybe it was the “Let’s Go Brandon” signs, but I was on the watch, the same way my father must have been on the long drive from one concentration camp to another.

Courtesy of Noriko Nakada

When I had cell reception again, I read about the protests outside the Supreme Court. People were speaking out against this ruling, refusing to give up the right of bodily autonomy, but I felt so far away. We had been in the car all day. The kids were hungry.

After lunch, we made our way back to the freeway, and there, surrounded by other homes and green lawns, sat a small house I could have easily missed: a women’s clinic. A sign outside read: “Abortion is Healthcare!” That clinic was a wildflower blooming in a state where abortion access is at high risk, and yet people were bravely speaking up, making sure that even here, in Montana, people knew they had somewhere to go for help.

That night, the perpetual dusk in Whitefish kept me awake. I gulped down stony water and breathed in mountain air. On my newsfeed, women shared stories of abortions, health scares and their experiences prior to Roe. I recalled my own abortion after a miscarriage, thought about friends, about receiving care after an assault, about people who simply weren’t ready to be parents.

The sky was finally dark, and the kids were asleep. Just that morning, I had been at Heart Mountain. In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the exclusion and relocation of 100,000 Japanese Americans in Korematsu v. United States. This week, Roe v. Wade was overturned. Sometimes our nation’s highest court shows poor judgment.

My mom lived the first half of her life before Roe v. Wade and the second half after; she didn’t live to see it overturned. My dad experienced incarceration as a boy and lived to see reparations paid for this injustice. As a new mountain range rose around me, I wondered what shape this new fight for human rights would take. I fell asleep dreaming of a future where reproductive justice could tower like these mountains, majestic and grand, and once again be part of the air I breathed.

Noriko Nakada is a multi-racial Asian American who creates fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art to capture the hidden stories she has been told not to talk about. Publications include her memoir series: Through Eyes Like Mine, Overdue Apologies, and I Tried. Through Eyes Like Mine was shortlisted for the 2040 Book Award. 

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