Elmer Smith

Name Elmer R. Smith
Born January 28 1909
Died May 1 1960
Birth Location St. Anthony, Idaho

Archeologist, anthropologist, community analyst at Minidoka, April 19, 1944 to October 25, 1945. One of only three community analysts who had a research interest in Japanese Americans, Elmer R. Smith (1909–60) actively engaged with the Japanese American community in Utah where he taught and was a frequent contributor to the Pacific Citizen and other Japanese American publications.

Elmer Richard Smith was born and raised in Idaho. He went to the University of Utah, where he graduated with B.Sc. (1931) and M.Sc. (1932) degrees. Though he pursued further graduate study at the Universities of California and Washington, he never finished his Ph.D. Pursuing in initial interest in the archeology of Native American settlements in Utah, he worked as an archeological technician in Zion National Park in 1934 and as a curator at the Museum of Central Utah in 1935–37 before landing in teaching position at the University of Utah in 1937. He would remain there for the rest of his academic career.[1]

He became acquainted with Nisei students at the University of Utah, especially after the World War II exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast brought many Japanese American families to Utah and became an informal adviser to them. He also spoke out for the rights of Japanese Americans and other racial minorities, becoming one of the founders of the Salt Lake City based Citizens Committee for Constitutional Rights and being active in other fair play type organizations. He began contributing a series of articles to the Pacific Citizen in the fall of 1943 aimed at Nisei students, advising them on education and on possible vocations. Smith would remain a regular contributor to the PC for the next decade.[2]

In April of 1944, Smith took a leave from the University of Utah to become the community analyst at Minidoka. The first analyst there, John E. de Young, had left Minidoka two months earlier for a position in the Washington, DC, office and his first successor, Gordon Armbruster, had left after a month for personal reasons. Smith arrived at Minidoka on April 18, 1944, and began work the following day. He remained at Minidoka until October 1945, with the exception of a two month stint at the end of 1944 when he was dispatched to the Pacific Northwest to investigate conditions as the first Japanese Americans were allowed to return there. de Young returned to Minidoka during Smith's absence.[3]

Between them, de Young and Smith were among the most productive community analysts, filing 355 reports. In his final report, Young states that the largest number of reports were classified as "Center Problems," and that he spent most of his time in particular reporting on conflicts in the camp, including various labor issues, disputes over the restoration of the draft for the Nisei, expatriation/repatriation issues, and the closing of the center, among other topics. He also reported that he "has not found himself at all times and in all predicaments on the positive side of the administration, nor getting the cooperation of some of the administrative officers when it was the most desirable," speculating that he was seen as too "pro-evacuee" and too focused on problems and inmate tensions. While at the camp, he became friends with Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) fieldworker James Sakoda and became part of a group that with Sakoda that frequently met for "bull sessions" to discuss various issues at the camp. Sakoda's writings reflect a similar and highly complementary view of Smith. In a diary entry written as Smith was leaving Minidoka, Sakoda wrote that he has "... in a class by himself, as far as A.P.'s ["appointed personnel," the WRA term for its white employees] on the project are concerned. He has succeeded in making contacts with evacuees and in gaining the confidence of many of them. This has been accomplished at the expense of his relationship with most of the other A.P.'s by whom he is considered to be prejudiced in favor of the evacuees, to say the least."[4]

Smith returned to the University of Utah after his Minidoka interlude and turned much of his research energy toward Japanese American related topics. He contributed reports on Utah to a resettlement study run by the War Agency Liquidation Unit, the successor to the WRA, in 1947. That same year, he received a research grant from the Viking Foundation for study titled "Historical and Ethnological Study of Persons of Japanese Ancestry in Utah," the eventually led to two articles on Japanese Americans in Utah in the Utah Humanities Review.[5] He was also an active member of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in Utah, making frequent speeches—including a keynote address at the 1948 JACL convention—and being commissioned to write a history of the JACL in 1950.[6] His JACL history appeared in serialized from in the Pacific Citizen in 1950–51 as well as in full from in the 1955 holiday edition, but the projected book never materialized. He made many other contributions to the PC including occasional articles on race relations and book reviews from 1944 to 1949 (some even dating from the time he was at Minidoka) in which he strongly espoused a view that Japanese Americans should be active in fighting all racism and not just racism against Japanese Americans. He also sometimes criticized Japanese Americans for their own racism.[7] After the series of articles on JACL's history, he published a weekly series of articles on race relations in 1951–52, followed by a six month series of articles on Nikkei in the Americans in 1952. With the end of Larry Tajiri's reign of editor of the PC and the paper's move to Los Angeles, Smith ended his regular contributions.

He continued teaching at the University of Utah through the 1950s, but resigned in 1959. He subsequently took a visiting professor job at Montana State University. He died of pneumonia at the age of 51 on May 1, 1960.[8]

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Dibble, Charles E. "Elmer R. Smith, 1909–1960," American Anthropologist, New Series 62.6 (Dec. 1960): 1047–49.

Smith, Elmer. "Final Report of the Community Analysis Section, Minidoka Relocation Center, Hunt, Idaho." Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft167n99p1.

———. "Nisei Resettlement in Utah." Pacific Citizen, Dec. 21, 1946, 11, 16.

———. Reports on Resettlement in Utah for War Agency Liquidation Unit study, 1947. Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study Collection. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/28722/bk001384988.

———. "Racism and Alien Land Laws." Proceedings of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 24 (1947): 63–70.

———. "The 'Japanese' in Utah (Part I)." Utah Humanities Review 2.2 (April 1948): 129–44.

———. "The 'Japanese' in Utah (Part II)." Utah Humanities Review 2.3 (July 1948): 208–31.

———. "Resettlement of Japanese Americans." Far Eastern Survey, May 18, 1949, 117–18.

———. Pacific Citizen articles. Elmer Smith contributed dozens of articles to the PC, most of which can be accessed through the PC's digital archives at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digital-archives. He published four more or less weekly series of articles, along with many stand alone pieces. The four series: Nisei and Education, August 21, 1943 to October 9, 1943; JACL History, April 8, 1950 to March 31, 1951; "The Box-Score on Race Relations," April 7, 1951 to April 19, 1952; and "Japanese in the Americas," April 26, 1952 to September 13, 1952.


  1. Charles E. Dibble, "Elmer R. Smith, 1909–1960," American Anthropologist, New Series 62.6 (Dec. 1960): 1047–49; National Research Council, International Directory of Anthropologists, Section I: Western Hemisphere, Washington, DC, March 1940, 139; Melville J. Herskovits, editor, International Directory of Anthropologists, Third Edition, Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 1950, 168.
  2. Pacific Citizen, Sept, 4, 1943, 5, accessed on May 27, 2014 at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19430904_005.jpg; Larry and Guyo Tajiri, Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era, edited, with an introduction and notes by Greg Robinson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 141, 142.
  3. Pacific Citizen, Apr. 15, 1944, 3, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19440415_003.jpg; Elmer Smith,"Final Report of the Community Analysis Section, Minidoka Relocation Center, Hunt, Idaho", Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft167n99p1; James Sakoda Diary, Apr. 19, 1944, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6gx4b89; Katharine Luomala, "Community Analysis by the War Relocation Authority Outside the Relocation Centers," Applied Anthropology 6.1 (Winter 1947), 29. All links accessed on May 27, 2014.
  4. Peter. T. Suzuki, “Anthropologists in the Wartime Camps for Japanese Americans: A Documentary Study,” Dialectical Anthropology 6.1 (Aug. 1981), 34, 52n116; Smith,"Final Report; James Sakoda Diary, Oct. 16, 1945, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, accessed on May 27, 2014 at http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6js9q46.
  5. People in Motion: The Postwar Adjustment of the Evacuated Japanese Americans (Washington, DC: War Agency Liquidation Unit, [1947]), 3; Pacific Citizen, Apr. 5, 1947, 3, accessed on May 27, 2014 at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19470405_003.jpg.
  6. Pacific Citizen, Sept. 11, 1948, 2, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19480911_002.jpg; Pacific Citizen, Jan. 28, 1950, 3, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19500128_003.jpg; Pacific Citizen, Oct. 7, 1950, 10, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19501007_010.jpg. All links accessed on May 27, 2014.
  7. See for instance, "Challenge to Nisei: Civil Liberties—For Me!, Pacific Citizen, Dec. 20, 1947, accessed on May 27, 2014 at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19471220_043.jpg.
  8. Pacific Citizen, May 6, 1960, p. 1; Dibble, "Elmer R. Smith."