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Remembering Japanese Americans' Internment at Heart Mountain

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Monday, January 10, 2022   

Heart Mountain was an internment camp in northwest Wyoming where Japanese Americans were relocated against their will during World War II.

It was the subject of a recent PBS TV special, and will also be featured in the Alliance for Historic Wyoming's new Placed-Based Stories project.

Dakota Russell, executive director of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, said while the camp closed at war's end, many families who had lost everything they owned after relocation decided to stay in Wyoming.

"We should, of course, take away the lessons that we need to learn about injustice, and about standing up for democracy, that we can take away from this story," Russell stated. "But we should also celebrate this community and the contributions they made to the history of our state at the same time."

Widespread misinformation campaigns claimed, without evidence, that Japanese Americans could not be trusted, and cast many as enemy spies. Surrounded by nine towers guarded by armed military police, the camp's 10,000 residents operated their own hospital, grew their own food, and built irrigation systems that continue to provide a lifeline to the area's farms and ranches.

Alan O'hashi's family was already living, by choice, in a vibrant but little known Japanese American community in downtown Cheyenne when relocations to Heart Mountain were under way.

O'hashi, an author and filmmaker, said his PBS Special "Beyond Heart Mountain" is in part a response to the high levels of anti-Asian racism during World War II, and most recently after COVID was dubbed the Chinese Flu.

"Hearing stories from people different from yourself, and trying to understand those histories, enables more civil relationships," O'hashi explained. "So that we're not basing our attitudes on preconceived stereotypes or preconceived ideas."

Heart Mountain's original barracks, after the government sold them off for one dollar each, continue to be used across Wyoming. Russell's group has recovered one, which will be open to visitors once it's been restored. Russell said there's a distinct power of place when you get to stand on the same ground where people's lives were changed forever.

"There's something about walking around the site," Russell noted. "There's something about walking into that barrack that we're restoring that really evokes that place in time in a way that you can't get from any book."

References:  
Film Wyo. PBS 12/21/2021

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