It’s no good to die not knowing who you are, my grandmother told me, first in a dream and then in waking life, a whisper on her deathbed. Like my grandmother, I have prophetic dreams sometimes. I dreamed she was dying and so rushed home to Los Angeles to discover she was dying. Like my grandmother, I don’t know who I am. Her husband died when my mother was only two, and with him went all of her memories, as if she died along with him, as if love could be that absolute. She had no other family—it was only her and her daughter alone in Arizona. So they lived without any memory, their past a beckoning question mark.

On her deathbed my grandmother told me, I’ve had a dream. Her eyes crinkled, her age-worn skin gathering darkness in its creases. She said, I’ve seen the key to remembering. Her breath smelled like dried rose petals.


“For one with a background like myself, the question of identity is very uncertain. And I think it’s only in art that it was ever possible for me to find any identity at all.”

–Isamu Noguchi, artist and architect, from an interview in 1973


I’ve always wondered who we are. Three generations of women staring into a wide expanse. I know I’m part white, because my father is white, but I didn’t inherit his blue eyes or light brown locks. I am my mother’s child. Dark unruly hair, skin that’s too olive or dark or whatever to be white. Something about the oval of our faces, the shapes of our eyes. I’ve spent most of my adult life as a wanderer. In Mexico, they believed I was Mexican and if not that then Chino by which they meant Chinese or simply Asian. In the American Midwest, where I live now, I am something to be squinted at, pondered over. In Turkey, they thought I was Turkish, they believed I was too dark to be American. If only they knew what American could really look like. Perhaps my family and I are the epitome of American—some unknown mix of colonizer and colonized.

But I hate not knowing. Perhaps I’ve been a wanderer because I’m forever searching for a place that feels like home.


“The land is sacred. These words are at the core of your being. The land is our mother, the rivers our blood. Take our land away and we die. That is, the Indian in us dies.”

–Mary Brave Bird, member of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s


On her deathbed, my grandmother sat up and looked bright-eyed and alert, as if the urgency of her message had allowed her to briefly recover. I have dreamed numbers, mija, she said. Mija: the Spanish endearment she used for both me and my mother. My grandmother learned Spanish after her husband died and she moved from Phoenix to LA. Or perhaps she had known it all her life. She had different stories about the language. She always said there was something foreign and familiar about it.

Mija, write this down, she said, so I did: 33, 59, 15, 114, 24, 4. You must go there, she said. You must witness cold rain fall on the hot desert sand. Then as the rain stops, you will see a bee and a hummingbird share dew and pollen from a marsh aster, and then you will begin to know who we are. Our story is in the land there.

Did I believe her? Her dream felt just like that: a dream—too otherworldly to believe. But when your dreams come true sometimes, magic begins to feel possible. Sometimes intense longing can make something real.

When she looked at me, her eyes blurry as sea glass, her mouth taking a last, echoing breath, I knew I had to believe. I’d spend the rest of my life trying to find that cold rain and hot desert sand if I had to.


“The country—what I have had the strength enough to see is beautiful. The mountains to the North West are rugged, beautiful and stony, but oh so treacherous looking.”

–Helen Aihara, an internee at the Poston War Relocation Center


The first place I visited after my grandmother’s death was a library where a kind worker helped me uncover that the words spoken by my grandmother were coordinates: 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W. The Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, three miles from the Colorado River. Then, I checked out three books about the area, and with camping gear and little else, hopped on a Greyhound toward Phoenix. I got off once we crossed the Colorado River, the water of it sizzling something within me. Even a few miles from it, at the stop in some tumbleweed town in La Paz Valley, I thought I could sense the water. In the air was a cavernous whisper. A fluttering gust rustling the coyote willows.


“I carry a river. It is who I am: ‘Aha Makav. This is not a metaphor.”

–Natalie Diaz, from “The First Water is the Body” in Postcolonial Love Poem, 2020


So. Here I am. I walk along this road. I carry my small pack. I hadn’t planned much—so raw with grief, desperate to find what my grandmother promised. I reach a camping ground, near enough to Poston I can see it. The site is empty except for me, catclaw acacia, and a dusty tap for water. I drink and feel dizzy. I feel the weight of a history that is a near-silent echo but wants to clamor forth and boom.

I dream of desert rain. I dream of a woman who looks a little like me. She calls out, reaches out her hand. She holds a thick book, which she opens. I place my palm to that text and its words creep onto my skin. My grandmother’s voice fills the air around me—I’ve seen the key to remembering, she says. To know yourself, you must know the land. This is how we find identity.


the story of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W
before the 16th century

If you live here, you are part of the Pipa Aha Macav, the people by the river. You trace your origins to Sprit Mountain, the tallest peak in the Newberry range, about one hundred miles north of Poston. You and your people thrive. You make farms, villages, and trade networks that span as far as the Pacific. Your spirit mentor, Mutavilya, created the Colorado River and its many animals and plants. The river brings rich silt, so maize and squash ripen. Mesquite and screwbean trees provide avya’ and a’i’tc beans. Rabbits, deer, cougars, and mountain sheep abound.


“…hereafter no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power…”

–The Indian Appropriations Act, 1871


I pack up my campsite and trek to Poston. It’s open to visitors but it isn’t the structure I’ve come to see. I check the weather: no chance of rain. Still, I circle the boundaries of Poston, linger in the desert, ready to wait and wait. I’d dreamt of rain, but still, dreams can be wrong. My mother doesn’t believe in prophecy. She doesn’t understand my quest, which is why it is mine and mine alone.

The sun beats a fierce, thick heat. I see no marsh asters here. This landscape is nothing but sage brush and burnt sand. It feels incredible that such a dainty, purple flower could flourish here.


the story of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W
the 16th century

If you are here, you might be an explorer, desperate for riches. An itch for discovery, an urge for conquering, the lure of the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, a mythic land of gold. This golden land is indeed a myth, is actually only desert. Perhaps a series of Zuni Pueblo settlements inspired this golden tale, but these are east of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W. The Spanish arrival begins a centuries-long rupture. Eventually, the British and others will come, first to the eastern edge of the continent, and then creep their way ever west. Eventually this land will be called Sonora, will be called Mexico, then the United States, Arizona.


When I have given up, when I have decided there will be no rain and I better head back to the campsite, when my body is broken by the heat, sweat-seeped and dizzy—this is when the rain comes. And isn’t it always like this? The thing you await comes only when you think it can no longer happen. A reminder to continue to believe, to persist.

As the rain touches the dry earth, small clouds of steam sizzle. Mist sifts through the air, like some magnificent spirit returning. I walk through it, the white thick of it so dense, that I lose myself. Lightning shatters the sky with light. The rain pours, shifting everything cool and beautiful.


the story of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W
the 18th century

If you live here, you are a member of the Spanish empire. Yet you are still the Aha Macav, your skin is still the same color, your language still your own. Spanish, perhaps creeps in. Your skin color, if this matters at all, is the same as it always has been, a color belonging to the desert, a hue made for heat.


I am drenched when the rain stops. My thin t-shirt clings to my body, and my shoes squish. I am covered in sand, each grit a reminder that I am alive, that I am here and close to something. When the mist clears, I am in an ocean of marsh asters. Their narrow purple petals cling to the rain’s droplets. I hold my breath. My grandmother is somewhere within me, in my blood, my bones, the peptide bonds deep within my genes. There is a bee, wings beating a frantic patter to be rid of the rain.

A hummingbird brushes past me—a blur. A whirring of wings and a splash of magenta, feathers iridescent as fish scales. As the bird flits from aster to aster, she makes quick che, che, che sounds.


the story of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W

If you live here, you are Mexicana, perhaps indígina, perhaps mestiza. The word: indígina describes so many people, from the Mojave to the Maya—groups with thousands of miles between them. If you are Mojave, you still speak Mojave. If you are Maya, you still speak Mayan—one or more of the twenty-six Mayan languages. You no longer live in the Spanish empire. You live in a country with a president, a federal republic.


The air is cool now in the desert. The sand, wet and delirious. I witness the hummingbird flit to the bee. Together, they dip their elegant and animated heads to the marsh aster. Together, they drink. I drink with them, lick the rain from the skin of my arm. It tastes of salt and nothing. The stars blink to life in the sky. It is not yet fully night. The sun and moon—two celestial orbs above. I dream of Poston’s past, a time when my grandmother was very young and may have moved through this land. I dream, but it feels like I am still awake.


1942 – Poston

Sand coats every surface, sticks to sweat-slicked skin, hides in crevices in their rough-hewn clothing. Their hair, usually dark as the far side of the moon, has been made light be the accumulating sand.

Still, they continue to work. The adults who are young enough to withstand the heat and the children old enough to lend a hand gather in a sweeping circle where they make adobe bricks.

A girl, who can’t be older than five or six, runs to her mother. Her mother’s hands are covered in mud and her back aches and her skin is crisp, but still she tries to smile.

The girl whines with boredom, so the mother plops down a bit of mud for her to play with. Almost everything is precious here, because resources are so limited, but mud is everywhere. The child tries to mimic the adults around her, tries to shape her own mud into a brick. It’s harder than it seems and soon she is frustrated. She longs for her home, a place that is now only a hazy memory. A home where she had her own room, a place where she and her parents would walk together down the misty, sloping streets and there was never heat like this.

The girl wants to cry but has learned tears are useless here. The mother wants to cry too, and perhaps a tear or two does slide down her cheek, into the sand, making a little more mud.

They make bricks and try to make conversation. A murmuring of Japanese and English. The old talking to the old, the young to the young. They’ve grouped themselves like this. The weathered hands to the north, the vibrant youth to the south. The mother is somewhere between. She dips into northern and southern conversation, but already feels more drawn to the south. Her daughter grows bored with the mud and races southward. She doesn’t say goodbye.

Each day they work like this. They will make a million adobe bricks to build their own schoolhouses, so that the children, like the girl, might learn more than just how brutal the desert can be, how to sweep your body free from sand.


the story of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W

You are technically American now. If you are Mojave, your children have likely been ripped away, taken to an Indian Boarding School where they can be civilized. There is a chasm of language and culture between you and your children.

Mutavilya becomes Jesus. Christianity is the ever-pervading rule. You are a member of what’s legally called a “domestic dependent nation.”


“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched…[so a U.S. citizen]…born of Japanese parents…grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.”

–W.H. Anderson“The Question of Japanese-Americans” Los Angeles Times, 1942


For days, I camp in the wild lands surrounding Poston. I talk to no one but my grandmother, who I know isn’t there with me, even though I feel her everywhere. I try to learn the shape of every plant, even if I have no way to know their human-given names. My grandmother would see no good use in that anyway. I sometimes seek comfort in the shade of my tent as I learn about this land from the three books I brought with me.

To know a place, you need years. Yet how to acquire the wisdom of time but by living through it, long day by day?


the story of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W

You now live on the reservation for the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), a place created for the Mojave and Chemehuevi who have lived along the Colorado River for centuries. Later, the Hopi and Navajo Tribes will be relocated here.


1943 – Poston

His hands are old, his body tired. Yet he can’t stand stillness in this place, aches for movement. On his daily walks around the camp, he’s scrounged scrap metal, has sharpened a large piece into a knife. They weren’t allowed to bring anything sharp in, and so they make do. They transform any spare bit they can.

A scrap of wood becomes his canvas. His clumsy, too-blunt knife scrapes the wood, shifts the lump into a beak, a wing. He likes carving birds because there’s comfort in their bodies and beauty. He likes to think of flight, how at any moment he could take to the air and leave this place.

When he is done, he’ll give this to the young girl he has come to think of as a granddaughter. A girl with too much energy for this place, a girl who always has mud on her hands.


“…the keepsake she left me is these children, / three or four. / I eat, I sleep…it’s all the same today as yesterday.”

–Yone Noguchi, “The Keepsake,” 1926


During the desert-cold nights camping at Poston, I have the most vivid dreams. Sometimes they’re of my grandmother, of memories from a past that once felt so close and now feels as far away as mist.

In one dream, my grandmother says, Remember we can’t always be lone wolves mija. We need community, you need others. I think this was a reminder to herself as much as it was a lesson for me.

But wolves don’t live alone, I say. They travel in packs. It’s wild cats that keep to themselves. Cougars and bobcats roaming the land solo, meeting another only to mate.

My grandmother laughs. Then remember. We can’t always be cougars. Sometimes we must be wolves.

I awake from the dream and try to feel the exquisite relief of solitude. Sometimes, I like the quiet, of existing only within sounds made from matter that isn’t human. And I’m not being a lone cougar, not really. I have my dreams, full of my grandmother and the past people of this land. I am a wild cat walking toward others, if only I can fully find them.


the story of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W

You live in America. You might be considered American, you might not. If you work here, you are white or a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribe or Black. If you live here, you are none of these. You are Japanese or Japanese American. You are Japanese but your children are American. Grandchildren speak English, grandparents Japanese. You live in a chasm. You are a prisoner, an American citizen, a spy. You live in the Mojave reservation on a parcel of land controlled by the American government.


“Asians represent six-tenths of one percent of the population of the United States…the people from that part of the world will never reach one percent of the population…Our cultural pattern will never be changed as far as America is concerned.”

 –U.S. Senate, the Committee of the Judiciary, Washington, D.C., 1965


1943 – Poston

The new nurses enter the camp. The internees line up to see them. A girl with mud-caked fingernails joins a crowd of children who holler gleeful greetings at the employees. They say quick words like, hello and welcome and thank you for coming. The adults are silent. Some wave or smile or have a hint of warmth in their eyes. Others have pupils that flicker with stone. Some have pursed lips, crossed arms, a stoic and wary sort of judgement.

The new nurses wear pristine white uniforms that look sharp and striking against their dark skin. The hair is pulled up neatly, adorned with a nurse’s cap. A sweep of something clean and enviable in this dusty place.

The internees look at the nurses with hunger, with disgust. These women who come and go as they please. These women who have made a choice to be here, even if it was a bad choice, a second choice, or else some calling.

The internees all envy these women, in their own ways. They don’t really know—how could they?—what these women face within and beyond the walls of the camp. In town, they can eat at only one of the available restaurants. At work, they listen to some of their light-complexion co-workers rave about the milkshakes at the local diner. The thought of a milkshake lingers with them. Their tongues craving that sweetness, that decadent cream.

At Poston, where the food is hardy and mostly filling but bland, there are many mouths hungering for something beyond reach. The internees, like the Black nurses, might dream of milkshakes. The lingering ache for that sweetness never leaves.


the story of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W

No one really lives here anymore. If you are here, you might be a resident of nearby Parker, a town of roughly 3,000. You are probably white, but might not be, might be Native American, or—even less likely—Asian or Black.


“To be hybrid anticipates the future. This is America, the nation of all nationalities.”

 –Isamu Noguchi from “I Become a Nisei,” 1942


In my dreams, a young girl comes to me. She looks like me and she doesn’t. I dream of her within the barbed wire fences of Poston. She presses her face to the metal and looks at the desolation beyond, beautiful and awful. She looks to the sky, a blue so miraculous she could weep.

I see her looking up at the stars at night. When she sees a shooting star, she has only one realistic wish. To see birds in the sky the next morning.

I dream of her beyond the walls. A woman with dark braided hair holds her hand, brings her to a home elsewhere. The woman says, This was once our home, and the girl doesn’t know what her mother means, not really, as she remembers nothing of that time before, can’t feel the truth that’s there, lingering within the land.


the story of 33°59′15″N 114°24′4″W

You are a visitor of the newly built memorial. You might be any race, but you don’t live here. The monument is erected on land granted by the Colorado River Indian Tribal Council. The memorial is funded from donations mostly from survivors of this place or their descendants.


“Th[e Poston] Memorial is dedicated to all those men, women and children who suffered countless hardships and indignities at the hands of a nation misguided by wartime hysteria, racial prejudice and fear. May it serve as a constant reminder of our past so that Americans in the future will never again be denied their Constitutional rights and may the remembrance of that experience serve to advance the evolution of the human spirit.”

–The Colorado River Indian Tribes website


I dream that I awake from a dream. In the desert, my grandmother stands beside me. She says, I’ve had a dream. Her age-worn skin gathers darkness in its creases. I’ve seen the key to remembering. We are surrounded by blooming marsh asters, their petals a thin lavender, their centers like little suns.

A young girl joins us, emerging from the flowers as if she’s been waiting for us. She reaches toward me, extends a mud-caked hand. I take it.

Rain starts, as sudden as a switch. It soaks us, clothing sodden and rinsed clean. A scrape of mud remains between the girl’s and my clasped hands.

It rains for days, hours, seconds. When it stops, I see a bee and a hummingbird hovering together over a flower, their quick wings almost invisible. For a moment, I feel the heart-deep sting of my aloneness and want to join them. I yearn to fly and to feel at home here. Then my grandmother places her hand on my shoulder, where it is heavy and warm. The feeling passes. I may be a wild cat, but I don’t always have to roam alone.

Yes, my grandmother says. Now you know.

About who I am, who we are: I have learned nothing, everything. I can taste the land around me, the dust and sweat and shifting salts of time.

This both is and isn’t our home, the girl says. It’s how it’s always been. She speaks in a language I don’t know, but I understand her.