Hard lessons from Colorado’s concentration camp

 
On the southeastern plains of Colorado, on 560 acres of stunted elms, yuccas and broken concrete, you can find the remains of Colorado’s only concentration camp. Here, from 1942-1945, over 14,000 men, women and children were held against their will, patrolled by military police and surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers.

Their crime? They were of Japanese descent, though the majority were U.S. citizens. Japan’s sneak attack against Pearl Harbor in 1941 had spooked the nation, and under Presidential Executive Order 9066, titled “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry,” farmers, fishermen and shopkeepers were evacuated, mainly from the West Coast, and taken to internment camps. When they were freed at the war’s end, most found they’d lost everything they owned.

Thanks to the efforts of high school teacher John Hopper in the small town of Granada, Camp Amache has begun to tell its 65-year-old story. The prison was called Camp Amache after a Cheyenne Indian woman who was married to pioneer rancher John Prowers. Hopper began with a course in the camp’s history by telling that and other stories, and though local families back his Amache history class now -- with students competing to get in -- it was a struggle at first: “No one wants to talk about racism.”

It helped that Japanese-Americans who lived at Amache, and their children and grandchildren, have begun visiting the site and eagerly telling the students their life stories. “They have a need to share their lives with a younger generation,” Hopper says.

In turn, Hopper’s high school students give presentations about the internment camp to groups that visit. They have also traveled to colleges and universities to talk to classes about the explosion of fear in this country that led to Japanese-Americans being held captive in a remote corner of Colorado. Tours of the camp, now a National Historic Landmark, have been led by the teenagers, and recently, four students traveled to Japan to make presentations at a Tokyo high school.

Ironies abound about the camp. Young Japanese-American men were recruited from it to join the U.S. Army and fight in the 442nd Regiment in Europe. This was the regiment that received both the most casualties and the most decorations as a result of the fight to liberate France. One of the students’ favorite stories concerns an interned woman, Katharine Odo, who became a teacher at Amache High School. At her own expense after the war ended, Odo drove to colleges around the country for 18 months, helping each of her Japanese-American students to get admitted.

In some ways, the camp was an economic boon for the surrounding community. Successful camp gardens influenced local farmers to start growing crops they’d never grown before -- onions, watermelon and cantaloupe. And inside the camp, where 95 percent of the original foundations are intact, you can still see the koi ponds where internees grew fish.

Even though the camp, which is one of the most intact of the country’s 10 World War II relocation prisons, has been closed for over six decades, it still has much to teach us. It has attracted college students who want to learn first-hand about historical archaeology. In May and June, the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology hosted an exhibit provocatively titled: “Confined Cuisine: Archaeology of Culinary Culture at Camp Amache.” And thanks to both the Amache Preservation Society and the Amache Historical Society, street signs now show where the camp’s buildings were located, including a silkscreen shop staffed by internees. It produced posters under contract for the U.S. Navy.

My stepfather was an attorney here in Prowers County years ago, and when my brother went through his files after his death, he found documents from Camp Amache. One was a typewritten speech by Marion Konishi, Citizen Number 6E-12-D, in the camp’s legal files. Konishi was the camp’s high school valedictorian, who spoke to her graduating class on the assigned topic: “What does America mean to you?”

She wrote on June 25, 1943: “I hesitated -- I was not sure of my answer. I wondered if America still means and will mean freedom, equality, security and justice when some of its citizens were segregated, discriminated against and treated so unfairly. I knew I was not the only American seeking an answer.”

Decades later, Americans still seek answers to persistent questions about racial discrimination and inequality. A good place to think about all this is a lonely site in southeastern Colorado on what used to be called “Jap Camp Road.”

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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