Heather Fryer, PhD, associate professor of history, Fr. Henry W. Casper, SJ, Professor of History and program director for American studies at Creighton University is a scholar of the 20th century American West. Her work extracts the messy truths of how race, class and gender have shaped the social reality of the region, as opposed to the popular mythology of the post-frontier West.
An examination of one of the darkest episodes in this era – the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in “camps” during World War II – led her to an untold story on the island of Hawaii. More specifically, much of the research for her latest project takes place not in a library or archive but at, yes, a Burger King.
The Climate Refugees of Shinmachi
Not far from this Burger King in Hilo, Hawaii, lies a field with a lonely sign that reads: “Site of Shinmachi.” Shinmachi means “New Town” in Japanese, but the town is long gone. In 1946, a tsunami nearly wiped it out, followed by a second tsunami in 1960 that displaced the mostly Japanese residents who worked on nearby sugar cane operations. Many of these hard-working residents had begun an upwardly mobile trajectory by starting small businesses. Suddenly, the surrounding area on the island – already restricted in size by geography – had to incorporate these climate refugees, and it did so with relative success.
Of course, at the time, these residents would not have been called “climate refugees.” But today Fryer can see that’s exactly what they were. While climate refugees are not an entirely new issue, they will soon become a more pressing one. Fryer explains that the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has abundant data to predict the physical effects of climate change on our planet and people. However, the UNHCR needs social scientists to provide guidance on how to cope with this impending reality from a social and cultural perspective. This is the impetus behind Dr. Fryer’s current work.
Through an archivist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Fryer connected with Kenneth Kazuta Kameoka, a man who had family in Shinmachi, and arranged for an interview. He insisted that Fryer meet him at the local Burger King. She later realized this is the place where Kameoka and the other older Japanese-Americans in the area come together to “talk story,” sing, play their ukuleles and use their senior citizens’ discount on coffee. In fact, Fryer notes, these residents don’t want to be interviewed per se – they want to tell their stories – and she listens, with the heart of a good friend and the mind of a social scientist. Transcripts of their oral histories will go to the Pacific Tsunami Museum.
After their first meeting, Fryer said goodbye to her research associate and started to walk away from the restaurant. He made gestures she didn’t understand at first, and she eventually understood that he wanted to show her something in his car. In the trunk, he had spread out a traveling museum of Shinmachi artifacts. He even had a huge pair of vintage metal tongs once used to move ice (see photo). It seemed as if he wanted to make sure he was ready if he ever met someone who wanted to hear – and see – his story.
Building trust and relationships is a key aspect of this project. During one meeting at Burger King, in the middle of music and storytelling, a resident asked her boldly, “Hey, Nebraska lady, why do you care about this?” For a historian from a university in the middle of the continental U.S., sitting in a Burger King on this Pacific island, it seemed like a reasonable question.
“In the immediate term,” Fryer says by way of an answer, “I want to show these people who have told me about their lives that what they have to say matters.” She knows all too well that, broadly speaking, the story of Japanese-Americans told by historians has been limited to their arrival on U.S. shores and the terrible chapter of internment camps. Little else has been documented about their contributions to their communities, and almost nothing has been recorded about Shinmachi in particular. By gathering these oral histories, Fryer seeks to fill the gap with rich stories that may also help avoid sociocultural conflict in the wake of environmental crises.
“Time to use what we have to offer to make the world work”
Responding to the UNHCR’s charge “also feeds into the work I do in peace studies,” she explains. Fryer edits the Journal of Peace and Change, published by the Peace History Society and Wiley History. “Peace studies right now is moving beyond just war and conflict,” she says. In the past, many scholars in the field focused on well-documented phenomena, such as conscientious objectors to WWI and protests against the Vietnam War, but Fryer wants to expand the reach of the field.
“One of my goals as the editor has been to look more toward practical application of the humanistic scholarship we do and draw more connections to global conversations.” As a historian, she says, “This is not a time to be thinking of how the world works, but time to use what we have to offer as scholars to make the world work.”
Fryer is involved in the world in many ways that complement her scholarship. She serves on the Nebraska State Historical Society Board of Trustees, and the local archdiocese recently approached her about writing a biography of the Rev. Edward Flanagan, the storied founder of Boys Town, for the canonization process. As with the Shinmachi project, an unexpected local connection arose from Fryer’s expertise in Japanese-American internment camps.
She explains, “Fr. Flanagan is distinctive because he was one of the first people to push on the War Relocation Authority to send people held in camps out on work release. The people who came to Boys Town were released as a result of Fr. Flanagan’s advocacy and his willingness to take the risk to house and employ them there. Many people of Japanese-American descent who live in Omaha came here because of Fr. Flanagan.”
In regards to her involvement in the community, she emphasizes: “This is what I want our students to be thinking about, too – I want to model for them that, yes, I am a historian and I am in my office a lot. But I also go to Lincoln to serve on the State Historical Society Board of Trustees to ensure that Nebraska’s local history is preserved and accessible to everyone. There is so much we can do to connect with people and be a part of things.” Fryer loves being able to connect one-on-one with students at Creighton. She encourages them to ask tough questions and to think critically to solve problems. They are not simply studying American history – they’re experiencing and shaping it.
Fryer’s words about her mission and her relationships with students point to a special dynamic at Creighton University. And the proof is in the pudding – the results of a 2015 survey conducted by the Gallup organization found that eight out of 10 Creighton students agree or strongly agree that their professors encouraged them to reflect on how content can be applied in the real world.
“This is a moment when we need new ideas and need to change the public discourse – think about how our Jesuit principles and Jesuit ideals mesh with this need to go out there. Let’s be a laboratory for solutions to problems.”
For more details on Fryer’s scholarship, see her expert profile.
Learn more about the Gallup survey results.
Photos courtesy of Heather Fryer