Feature | 22 February 2018

Making Okinawa accessible—and personal


“The Gail Project is why I chose to attend UCSC,” says Alexyss McClellan. As a prospective student on a campus visit, she learned about the project and saw the opportunity to relate her personal history to her studies.

The Gail Project—a student-led research program focused on the founding years of the American military occupation in Okinawa—is named after Charles Eugene Gail, an American Army General whose photos of 1950s Okinawa guides students’ research on the ground in Japan. McClellan, a granddaughter of an Okinawan, is a fourth-year student double-majoring in history and critical race and ethnic studies.

McClellan has participated in the project since her first year. It has given her plenty of fodder to bring home to her family—and to further her career as an aspiring historian. With help from The Humanities Institute, which supports the Gail Project, McClellan traveled to Okinawa in 2017. Her work has focused on hajichi, or indigenous tattooing practices. She says that Gail’s archive of photos helps her retrieve oral histories that she couldn’t access any other way.

“Because cameras were banned during that time, these photos are really special. Photos of such artistic quality of everyday people are so rare, they border on nonexistent,” she says. “When people see these photos, they bring back memories of the tiniest little details—memories that would be lost.”

True to her wishes as a prospective student, the project has deepened her connection with her relatives. “I have that much more to talk to them about—this place that’s captured in these photographs that doesn’t exist anymore,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to do it if it weren’t for the Gail Project.”

And the project does more than just strengthen family ties. It salvages a history that might otherwise be lost, or possibly worse, misremembered. She sees the study of history and the work of the humanities as vital to human connections.

“If we weren’t to study history, or we weren’t to study the humanities, we lose the ability to communicate with each other, and that has all sorts of implications,” says McClellan.

In August of this year, UCSC alumni will be able to experience student researchers’ storytelling and passion for Okinawan history firsthand. The Humanities Division is organizing a trip to Okinawa in which undergraduate student researchers will guide alumni through battle sites, shrines, markets, and artisans’ workplaces. The trip will allow students to draw the contours of historical events and relay illustrative details, passing along their sense of urgency and curiosity to an ever-expanding audience. Learn more.