Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Reluctant History

By Jeff Burns

Recently, on a summer trip to Montana and Wyoming, my wife and I visited the Heart Mountain Japanese Relocation Center historic site.  Located near Cody Wyoming, Heart Mountain was home to about 14,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast (and one Caucasian woman who refused to leave her Japanese husband) from 1942 to 1945.  Because of Executive Order 9066 which essentially deemed all Japanese-Americans security risks following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and authorized their relocation to 10 internment camps in some of the most desolate and isolated parts of the country.  Families were forced to sell or give away their farms, stores, and homes.  They were allowed to pack a single suitcase each, loaded on buses and trains and moved to camps like Heart Mountain, where they were to live in hastily built barracks, each family allotted a single small room.  There was no privacy or freedom anywhere, and they were constantly surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

Government propaganda photo of life in camp
Candid photo of actual family room

Today, little remains physically of the structures at Heart Mountain. There are a couple of buildings and a smokestack of the hospital complex and a barrack building that has recently been donated and moved back to the site.  None of the buildings are open for visitors.  There is a memorial site and observation posts on top of a hill from which visitors can get a little idea of how the camp was set up. There is an excellent interpretive center with interesting and well done exhibits showing life before Pearl Harbor, the deportations and life in the camp. 

But this is not an “On the Road” Histocrats blog; I’m writing to share an experience at the interpretive center that made me really think about history and the teaching of history. While we were in the museum, a family of three came in: an older Japanese-American man, his Caucasian wife, and their granddaughter who appeared to be in her twenties.  It’s a relatively small museum, so we couldn’t help but overhear their conversation with the museum staff.  Turns out, the man was an internee at Heart Mountain as a small boy, and this was his first visit there since 1945.  The museum staff immediately asked if he wanted to give them his contact information so that his oral history could be added to their collection.  He quietly refused, saying he wasn’t interested.  His wife and granddaughter said that he had never spoken about his experiences, that one of the cultural characteristics of Japanese people is not to dwell on the past, especially unpleasantness, and that had been drilled into him by his family. 

The family followed us into the theater for the excellent film about the camp; the film was produced by the son of an internee and features about a dozen internees telling their stories, including a couple who lived in the same barracks block as the visiting grandfather. Throughout the fifteen minute film and the museum exhibits, I watched the grandfather.  While his granddaughter sobbed during the movie, he sat stoically, without changing expression.  That stoicism persisted as he looked at photographs and exhibits, including reproductions of the rooms.  I could tell that his stoicism frustrated his granddaughter, who obviously wanted him to open up, and his wife, presumably after decades of marriage, appeared to be resigned to his quietness.

When I awoke early the next morning (body clock still on Georgia time), I thought about what I had seen, and I wondered what if I should have introduced myself to the family as a history teacher and told the grandfather how much his story and first person accounts like his mean to my students. Every year, I bring in Vietnam veterans to speak to my classes, and I often share stories of my encounters with Holocaust survivors and civil rights activists.  Their stories bring history to life for my students, and they create more thought, discussion, and reflection than any textbook or lecture can.  However, I know that there is a lot of history within people that they are reluctant to share, so much pain that they can’t bear to speak it. Unfortunately, that grandfather may never be able to share his story, but I developed a deeper appreciation for those who have shared, and I have a renewed desire to use primary sources and personal accounts in my class this fall.