Amache, the camp in Colorado where Japanese-Americans were rounded up during World War II, is now a stop along a route that tourism authorities have set up to lure travelers to out-of-the way sites of historic or geographic interest. The route’s slogan is: “Come closer to America’s heart and soul.”
I was initially taken aback to read those words on a placard at Amache. But as I walked the gravel roads, I was challenged to understand the hearts and souls of Americans who had persevered and overcome despite injustice.
We went to Amache on a group trip organized by History Colorado, the state archives. During our daylong visit we met Bonnie Clark, a University of Denver archaeologist who has for a decade been unearthing artifacts that tell the story of Amache. A bit of rusted hardware that a handyman might have used to create furniture to make the army-issue camp seem more like home. A remnant of shellfish that might have reminded a camp resident of cooking a meal in a kitchen back on the California coast. A shard from a toy tea set that made me think of a parent watching fondly as a son or daughter played at being grown up – and wondering what the future might hold for a child deemed an enemy alien by the government.
“I’ve always been interested in what people do when their identity is under attack,” Clark told us.
Amache Ochinee Prowers was the Southern Cheyenne wife and business partner of white trader and cattleman John Wesley Prowers, for whom the county where the camp is located is named. Her father, a Cheyenne chief, was among the scores of Native Americans murdered by attackers led by U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington in 1864 in the Sand Creek Massacre, among the most infamous events in Colorado history. Calling the site Amache was likely meant to honor a woman who was prominent in the area in the 1800s. But it’s hard not to see something brutal in linking a subjugated people to a concentration camp.
Concentration camp is a loaded term now because of the Nazis. But it is the very phrase Americans used in the 1940s for Amache and places like Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Manzanar in California, among a dozen built following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
While Pearl Harbor is often cited as the impetus, the targeting of Japanese-Americans and Japanese living in America followed decades of racist rhetoric and anti-Asian immigration policy. German- and Italian-Americans also were incarcerated without due process during World War II, but they did not face the systematic and widespread discrimination that saw some 120,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese in America forced – the euphemism of the time was “evacuated” _ from their homes and stripped of their livelihoods.
The current vilification of Muslims and of immigrants from Latin-America echoes painfully. In the years since Amache was closed, housing for immigrant farm workers who help feed our nation has been built on part of the site. Asians in the 19th and 20th century were seen as incapable of being truly American. Survivors of places like Amache and their descendants have insisted that what happened during World War II be remembered that it informs efforts to ensure the Constitution protects all who live in America or seek to make a life here.
When World War II ended, U.S. officials hustled away those who had been imprisoned at Amache with little regard for how they would rebuild their lives. Barracks and other camp buildings were moved or destroyed, as if to return the plot to the arid prairie it had been four years before. But concrete foundations and stubborn trees planted by camp inmates resist the attempt at erasure and give researchers a template on which to build.
At archaeologist Clark’s Granada headquarters, a former Head Start campus, I sat down with a report that James Lindley prepared in 1945 that looked back on his work directing Amache for the government. Lindley acknowledged that Japanese-Americans had been subjected to “unfair treatment.” From his privileged position, he praised those he saw as accepting their fate with calm resignation, and criticized those in whom he detected anger or resentment.
At a museum in Granada, the small town closest to Amache, I read this passage from a commencement address that Marion Konishi gave when she graduated from the camp’s high school in the 1940s:
“I wondered if America still means freedom, equality, security and justice when some of its citizens were segregated, discriminated against and treated so unfairly. I know I was not the only American seeking an answer.”
Chava Valdez-Ono’s grandfather and great-grandfather were held at Amache. Valdez-Ono is an anthropology student who is among Clark’s team of researchers at the one-square-mile Amache site.
Clark also works with Granada townspeople. John Hopper, a social studies teacher and later principal at Granada High School, began preservation efforts at Amache a decade before Clark arrived. Hopper and his Amache Preservation Society volunteers tracked down guard and water towers and just this spring a recreation hall that had been removed from the camp. Restored to their original positions, the buildings allow visitors today to touch the past.
Destiny Vega, one of Hopper’s high school students gave us a tour of the museum in Granada, which is run by the Amache Preservation Society. Vega, who also is helping out with Clark’s dig, was self-possessed, knowledgeable and contemplating college in California or Colorado. I wonder if she would be thinking about her future in such an expansive way if Hopper hadn't given her a chance to dive deep into the past.
Clark says there’s still much to learn from Amache. During this summer’s observations and excavations, the professor for the first time found evidence that glass block was used in ablution block windows. That was another piece in the puzzle as researchers consider how hard it must have been to find privacy at the camp.
Having private moments is part of normal life. As was creating Japanese-style gardens complete with ponds at Amache. Clark has traced how plants and seeds were ordered from Sears catalogs.
A garden is “literally a place to put down roots when you are an uprooted people,” Clark said.
In all, Amache was home for varying periods to some 10,000 prisoners, among them entrepreneurs, farmers, doctors, nurses, university professors, aerospace engineers. Some people were born there. At least 121 died and were cremated or buried in Amache’s small, tree-sheltered cemetery. Inscriptions on original wooden grave markers faded over the years. When the Amache Preservation Society renovated the cemetery, it had to inscribe one new stone marker: “Evacuees Unknown.”
The cemetery is also the site of a memorial to Japanese-Americans who left Amache to join the U.S. military and fought and died for a country that had questioned their loyalty.
Clark always ends Amache tours at the cemetery.
“The desire to remember the camp really began with the honoring of the ancestors,” she said.