Monday, August 22, 2011

Heart Mountain Opening

Heart Mountain, WY

On August 20, the hard work of many individuals and organizations resulted in the grand opening of the Heart Mountain Visitor Interpretive Center between Powell and Cody, Wyoming. During World War II, people of Japanese ancestry were moved from their homes, with what they could carry in their arms, to internment camps. This was one of those camps. Like Manzanar (see my photos and text near the end of the Oct 27, 2010 entry titled "Eastern Sierras") this was a remote, desolate, yet starkly beautiful setting, far from their homes and the way of life to which they were accustomed.

The center design resembles the tar-paper covered barracks of the internment center.

For the grand opening, several hundred former internees returned to the site. Joining them were their children, grandchildren and many people interested in this reminder of how hysteria can lead us to forget basic constitutional rights. I didn't make reservations in time and so did not attend the banquet at which Tom Brokaw was the featured speaker. I did get to hear Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. Senator Inouye, as a resident of Hawaii, was not subject to internment, even though the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which precipitated the Executive Order moving Japanese-Americans and residents of Japanese birth from the west coast occurred in the Hawaiian territory. He was a highly decorated soldier during the war, and bears serious physical scars from his service. He is best known to many Americans for his calm, reasoned questioning during the Watergate hearings.

Perhaps most touching were the presentations by Norm Minetta and Alan Simpson,. Minetta, former Congressman from California, former Secretary of Commerce under President Clinton and former Secretary of Transportation under George W. Bush, an unusual situation in which his skills were recognized by two administrations of differing parties and outlooks, was a child when his family was moved to Heart Mountain. He was active in a Boy Scout troop in the camp and was there when the Heart Mountain Boy Scouts invited Scouts from Wyoming and Mountain to come to the camp for some activities. Since the internees could not leave the camp, it made sense to invite the other boy scout troups from the area to come to them. Initially the invite was declined by troops who felt they should not associate with the internees. But a second letter, stating that they were all Boy Scouts, all of them pledged to the same Boy Scout oath brought some troops to the camp. One of the troops was from nearby Cody and included a young Alan Simpson.

Minetta and Simpson became friends. It was a friendship that has continued throughout their lives. From letters to each other from their college campuses to Washington DC when were elected to Congress; Minetta, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, Simpson a Republican Senator from Wyoming. Together they worked to bring about the apology to all the internees and the Civil Liberties bill of l988, signed by President Reagan.

Displays from the new center. Below are members of the Heart Mountain Camera Club. Initially cameras were banned; eventually internees were allowed to have cameras, had their own newspaper. Photos by these photographers help fill the walls of the center with the story of life in the camp.

This initiated a period of healing for many internees who began to tell their stories. Although some had been speaking up for a while, this act opened the hearts and memories of many people. The efforts at Manzanar and at Heart Mountain honor those memories and remind us we need to be cognizant of the dangers of repeats of this shameful chapter in our history.
A co-worker and friend, Nan, and I headed to the event, stopping for coffee along the way. As we sipped our coffee, we talked with two women at an adjoining table, two women who lived in the camp as youngsters, returning to celebrate the opening of the Visitor Center and to reconnect with people they had known there.
Later, sitting under the huge tent erected for the couple thousand attendees at the event, I talked with the woman next to me. Born and raised in Powell, she had worked at the camp, erecting barracks before the first internees arrived. Later her family hired people from the camp to help on their ranch during harvest time,picking them up and returning them to the camp. The center and what happened there was also part of her history and her first encounter with the Japanese-American culture.

Instead of a ribbon cutting, the dignitaries cut barbed wire, symbol of the fencing that surrounded the site.

Due to the huge number of people at the opening ceremony, only internees were allowed in the first two waves of visitors to enter the building to see the exhibits. Nan and I decided that we would return in a few weeks and allow the internees first and then folks who had come great distances to enter the buildings. But chose not to see the inside that day, but went back a couple weeks later. I had already seen the film, "All We Could Carry," directed by Academy Award winning Steven Okazaki. Co-workers Ruth and Leslie Quinn bought the video and shared it. But I watched again and then worked my way through the exhibits, looking at the photos and reading the text. This blog includes photos from the Grand Opening and from my later visit.

Click on this photo to enlarge it and read the text. In case you are unable to do so, a very short synapses is included below.

Clarence Ito served as a member of the US. armed forces during WWI. In recognition of his service, he was awarded US citizenship, something which was forbidden to anyone other than whites and people of African descent who were born outside the USA. Mr. Ito was born in Japan, but lived and worked in the US. He enlisted and served during WW I. Congress later awarded citizenship to men who served during the war. But being a citizen and a veteran did not prevent Mr. Ito from being sent to an internment camp. Sent to Heart Mountain along with other US citizens of Japanese Ancestry, he died while in the camp, behind barb wire, denied the rights of citizenship.