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Thirty years, one unified passion

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One man’s lifelong passion is another man’s scholarship. That’s the personal and professional bond of Dr. Bob Sims, founding dean of Boise State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, and Dr. Todd Shallat, who was recruited by Sims to come to Boise State in the 1980s. Shallat would go on to helm the university’s Center for Idaho History and Politics and collaborate on 20 books about cities, economics and culture. His latest effort, Surviving Minidoka, is a project that Shallat says was inspired by Sims through his leadership in making Minidoka, the site of Japanese-American incarceration during World War II, a national landmark.

Shallat was quick to point out that Surviving Minidoka has many collaborators, including co-editor Russ Tremayne, multiple authors and hundreds of rarely seen images of a shameful chapter in Idaho’s and America’s history. But the core inspiration of the project was always Sims.

Bob, you have Native-American blood coursing through your veins.

Sims: I’m a registered member of the Cherokee tribe. My great-grandfather was full-blooded Cherokee and my grandmother raised me on a mix of Indian customs and mythologies and cures for whatever ails you.

Which prompts me to ask about your health.

Sims: I was told in 1998 that I had six months to live, due to prostate cancer. Boise State said, “Keep your office” because, quite frankly, we thought I was going to die in a few months. Fifteen years later, I’m just now moving out of my office.

And your health today?

Sims: I’m about to start a new round of oral chemotherapy. Plus, I underwent triple bypass surgery this past May. The medications make me more fatigued but maybe they’ll give me some more longevity.

Todd, do you remember when Bob first called you?

Shallat: Right out of the blue, in the 1980s. Bob was among a generation of historians that transformed the profession, an international movement that today we call “public history”–it’s the idea that historians should work within communities. It wasn’t just Bob and me; it was a whole bunch of people and it was happening throughout academia. But I’ve always considered myself just a writer.

But that’s not entirely true.

Sims: Of course not. Todd’s an impresario. He makes things happen, connects people and produces work that people pay attention to.

How long ago was the idea for your book, Surviving Minidoka, generated?

Shallat: Since I first came to Boise State. Almost 30 years.

Let’s talk about how words matter when describing what happened in 1942. Isn’t the term “internment” a watered-down word to describe Minidoka?

Shallat: The New York Times still uses the word “internment.”

Sims: And the U.S. Park Service used the word “internment” when they developed the first plan for the monument.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right word.

Sims: The original language was “evacuation and relocation.” The terms generally embraced now are “removal and incarceration.”

Shallat: The Park Service calls it the Minidoka Relocation Camp, which is a misnomer. It’s really a fascinating debate. “Concentration camp” is really more accurate for what was going on at the time.

Haven’t words like “relocation” or “evacuation” lessened the shame over what happened?

Sims: Following Minidoka conferences and lectures, we still get letters saying the incarceration was justified.

Shallat: This subject matters more than ever today, in an age when we continue to see ethnic or racial profiling. That’s really what this book is about. It’s not just 1942.

In these letters that you receive, are people denying what happened at Minidoka?

Sims: They’re trying to justify the existence of the camps.

Shallat: These are Idahoans that truly believe military necessity always trumps civil liberties.

How happy are you with how the book turned out?

Shallat: Because of my relationship with Bob, it’s really important to me. He’s one of my mentors. Bob is my friend and my dean. And in many ways, it’s a tribute to that.