Friday, March 11, 2016

Colorado Day Trip: Amache Internment Camp, Part 2

Historical information is here.
Part 1 is here.

I wish I knew why this was so powerful for me. I can't explain it. I am not Japanese. As far as I know, none of my ancestors was Japanese. But I have always had a deep appreciation of the history, culture, and people of Japan. It is one of the few places I want to visit before I am unable to travel anymore. Hearing about the Executive Order 9066, the displacement of people just because of their ancestry, and the experiences of their lives in the camps, it all hits me very hard.

Visiting the Amache Museum in Granada was deeply interesting. I have to say a huge, "Thank you" to Mr. John Hopper. He is a social studies teacher at the high school and oversees the Amache Preservation Society. He drove down and opened the museum for us. He also took time to speak with us about the history of the camp and some of the artifacts in the museum. He risked being late for a meeting to share with us.

The museum doesn't look like much. It is a small building, much like many of the museums you find in small communities. When you step inside, you can see almost all of the museum by sweeping your view around the room. The "tour" is simply a circuit around the open format, looking at cases and wall-hangings. But the museum is a window into the life of a community that developed and disappeared within 3 years.

Life for the inhabitants of the camp was the effort to live as normal as possible in a setting that screamed, "This is not normal." Fences, spotlights, guard towers with armed guards watching all of the activity in the camp were part of their ongoing, daily lives.

Instead of homes or apartments that offered privacy for a family, multiple families were housed in a single building. "Rooms" were partitioned with walls that didn't extend all of the way to the ceiling and were thin plywood. Living space was 20'x20' for small families; 20'x24' for larger families. Provided accommodations included a light bulb, a potbelly stove, and military cots with thin mattresses. There were no shelves or chest of drawers for their belongings. Rules were established that prohibited scavenging of scraps, but it did not stop people from using what they could find to provide for a more comfortable existence.

The familiar family structure of the inhabitants were also challenged. Japanese families were very centralized. Prior to living in the camps, families sat down at meals together. Camp life required traveling to a central mess hall within blocks for communal meals. But family time was changed. The gathering around the table became less a time of connection for the family. Instead of sitting with the family unit, younger generations would sit with classmates and peers in the communal dining hall.

Many times, those meals did not take the culture and traditional meals of the people into account. They were provided their rations from the government. It took time for staples that families were accustomed to using before they were provided for the camp, including rice.

The camp, itself, was staffed by many of the internees. The police and fire departments were completely staffed by internees (except for the chief of security and the military police). The silk screen printing shop and the co-op that operated within the boundaries of the camp were run by residents. Those who were health professionals before life in the camp were allowed to work in the camp hospital. The majority of people had to work in the fields growing crops or raising livestock. These were not forced labor situations, but opportunities were severely limited. Permission had to be granted to leave the camp grounds. The town of Granada did not have many more opportunities, and the citizens of the community filled many of those.

It is difficult to fit everything into just a few posts. The thoughts, feelings, and impressions that run through me as I write crash into each other. It becomes difficult to sort out what I want to say or how to say it. I could continue, but I will not. I would like to finish this reflection on the Amache camp with the following thoughts, though.

There has been some disagreement over how to describe the camp. It was officially called a relocation center. It was defined as a place for those who were displaced by the military. The military had the authority to choose the boundaries of that area and who was to be excluded. Persons who were defined as being excluded were relocated to the camps. It has also been called an internment camp. People were sent here to live, but they were very restricted in how they lived. Synonyms for an internment camp would be prison camp and the typical internees would be prisoners of war or political prisoners. In other countries these were called gulag or stalags.

The last term used to describe the camps is the hardest to choke down for most good Americans. President Franklin Roosevelt called the camps he created concentration camps. There is good reason to use this term. A concentration camp was established to "concentrate" a population of people who fit a particular profile. For the Nazis, the majority of people in their camps were Jews. The post Pearl Harbor Americans chose to concentrate Japanese and Japanese Americans. They were "relieved" of citizenship and the rights that were theirs under the Constitution. They had their way of life taken from them. Many internees were released and allowed to return to their place of residence only to find their homes, jobs, and belongings were gone. They had to start over.

I know that not all Japanese heritage persons were sent to the camps. The exclusion zones were found along the west coast. But that was also where the largest concentration of Japanese were found. The targeted racism is apparent because no other group was excluded from those regions, including those of German heritage who may have had the same length or status of citizenship. This was a dark day for those who were forced to live out years of theirs lives as non-alien members of their own nation.