Aug 25, 2015

Annual pilgrimage to Heart Mountain internment site highlights lessons from the past

A newly dedicated root cellar and a recently relocated barrack are among the latest features at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. They are reminders of a dark chapter in America’s past that brings former incarcerees, their families and others back to the former Japanese-American internment camp each year.

"We welcome those who come here on the pilgrimage. ‘Pilgrimage’ was usually a journey to a foreign land, but the journey of your forbearers was a journey to a foreign place in your own land," said former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson of Cody.

University of Wyoming American studies professor Eric Sandeed chats with former Heart Mountain internment camp incarceree Michel Kuwahara Saturday morning. Kuwahara was incarcerated as an infant and was filmed along with his family at the internment camp. Footage of Kuwahara is often used in Sandeen’s classes. Cody News Co. photo by Matt Naber

Over the weekend, the annual pilgrimage brought back a familiar panel of guest speakers, including former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, Simpson, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi, HMWF Vice Chair Douglas Nelson, and HMWF Executive Director Brian Liesinger to reflect on the past and look to the future.

“We collect the experiences, the stories and lessons attached to these places and items, only with those can we tell the Heart Mountain story,” Liesinger said as he welcomed the crowd of a few hundred guests on Saturday. “Only with those can we stress the importance of preventing it from happening again.”

Mineta encouraged everyone to look to the past while building for the future to ensure something like the internment camps never happens again.

He recalled the events following 9/11 when discussion was held in Washington, D.C., and across the country about possibly rounding up Arabian-Americans and Muslims — a reminder that lessons of the past are easily forgotten and history can repeat itself.

"It amazes me that people don’t know that history of our country and when they hear it, they are intensely interested and shake their heads that something like that occurred in the United States," Mineta said.

“When racism rears its head, terrible things happen,” Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Executive Director Brian Liesinger said.

About 400,000 people drive by the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center each summer, Simpson said. Without the efforts of the foundation, its donors, researchers and benefactors, each new generation of Americans might not know what happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II, speakers said.

“When racism rears its head, terrible things happen,” Liesinger said. “We must use the wrongs of the past to value the rights and liberties of everyone today.”

Simpson and Mineta formed their life-long friendship while Mineta was incarcerated at Heart Mountain and Simpson was a local Boy Scout. They went on to serve in Congress, the board of the Smithsonian and many other government activities.

Steven Arita, a Heart Mountain/Gila River internment camp descendant, looks at a photograph at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center on Saturday. Cody News Co. photo by Ilene Olson
"Norm bears not a shred of bitterness, sadness yes, but bitterness no,” Simpson said. “Hatred corrodes the container it is carried in.”

Although they were imprisoned on their homeland, the incarcerees kept busy by working together to create infrastructure, such as the newly dedicated root cellar.

Heart Mountain incarceree Eiichi Edward Sakauye led the construction of the root cellar in 1942 and 1943. Now, more than 70 years later, it was dedicated as part of the interpretive center and a plaque was presented to his daughters, Carolyn Sakauye and Jane May.

“It is an important symbol to us — the collaboration and cooperation the foundation has done,” Nelson said, noting it would not have been possible without the cellar being donated by its former owners. “This is an extraordinary example of the kindness and generosity of our Park County neighbors that has made everything we do possible.”

The root cellar is not stabilized enough yet for visitors to walk around inside the 300-foot long cellar, but that is the ultimate goal for the cellar, Nelson said.

“It is one of the huge ones,” Nelson said. “It is an awesome structure.”

Sakauye’s root cellar provided storage space for the crops harvested inside the camp to feed its 10,000 residents — the third-largest city in Wyoming at the time, Nelson said.

“He made sure Heart Mountain’s cellars were kept and fully stocked,” Nelson said. “It was an extraordinary achievement.”


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