America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering Statism, Racism and Heart Mountain, Wyoming Through Art

artwork, artist, statism, racism, heart mountain, wyoming, heart mountain internment campNot so long ago, the United States federal government forcibly uprooted tens of thousands of American citizens, and placed them in concentration camps scattered around the western part of the nation. Heart Mountain, Wyoming was one such place that I recently visited.

Today, it’s a nice museum about 15 minutes north of Cody, Wyoming. Outside of the museum a few of the original buildings remain, slowly decaying to time, along with a large deteriorating brick smoke stack and a rebuilt guard tower that stands watch nearby. But at one time, this area was home to more than 14,000 Japanese Americans who were confined in hastily built structures during World War II. Leaving behind property, businesses, possessions, careers, schools, friends and even family pets – the people were allowed only to take what they could carry in a single suitcase. Because of this, many were ill prepared for the harsh winters and uninsulated structures at Heart Mountain. And upon release several years later, many would attempt to return to the lives they left, only to find their homes repossessed, sold, or destroyed. As such, some never recovered.

heart mountain internment camp, heart mountain, wyomingAccording to a Heart Mountain informational booklet, “A total of 14,025 people lived at the ‘Heart Mountain Relocation Center’ from 1942 to 1945. Five hundred fifty-six babies were born, 148 people died, 800 men and women served in the Armed Forces and 85 protesters refused to obey the draft order. Among them, 63 were charged with resisting the draft and sent to federal penitentiaries.”

One couple’s story particularly resonated – Estelle and Arthur Ishigo. Estelle, an art teacher, was a Caucasian woman married to Arthur Ishigo, and although she didn’t have to go to the camp, she never-the-less decided to be interred with her husband. Later they were released in 1945, and the U.S. government reimbursed the couple with $102.50 for their loss of property and possessions. However, Arthur passed away in 1957 from cancer and Estelle lived in seclusion and poverty for the rest of her life. She was later found in a wheelchair with both her legs amputated due to gangrene. Her and Arthur’s story can be found in the book written by Estelle called “Lone Heart Mountain“. Filmmaker Steven Okazaki would also create a documentary about Estelle’s life called “Days of Waiting“, although Estelle would pass away before ever seeing it. Today, many of Estelle’s paintings of life at the concentration camp can be seen at the Japanese American National Museum.

Estelle Ishigo, Heart Mountain Internment Camp, Japanese Americans, artistAnother artist, Hatsuko Mary Higuchi (whose work seeks to visually communicate the experience of Japanese Americans during this time), discusses her abstract artwork called Turmoil at Heart Mountain. She notes on her blog site that it represents the “resistance at Heart Mountain that challenged the constitutionality of their imprisonment and demanded freedom as a condition of their conscription into the U.S. Army.”

Today, artists like Setsuko Winchester continue to try to make sense of this story. Her project, called “Freedom from Fear”, utilizes 120 hand-made tea bowls to represent incarcerated Japanese Americans. According to Asian American Press, “she explains the project as her attempt to use art and beauty to examine something ugly”.

Visiting the Heart Mountain museum is a profound experience. With beautiful scenery, numerous artifacts, photos, artwork and interactive exhibits (including recreations of small rooms entire families lived in), it’s hard not to be moved when you think of what these people had to endure at the hands of the State. It might be easy for some to make excuses or justifications for what happened then – and continues to happen now through government abuse and Statism – but as this museum so adeptly illustrates, it doesn’t make it any less excusable.

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