Last in the three-part series, "Saving Amache"
Gary Ono is at home, leafing through some photos from the Amache internment camp in eastern Colorado. He was forced to live there as a child – along with thousands of other Japanese Americans.
“There's us standing out in the field,” he said. “Our barrack was kind of on the edge of that field, the baseball, football fields.”
At the time, his mom contracted tuberculosis, so she was sent to a hospital outside the camp to get treated. These photos were the main way his mother learned how he was doing.
“My Aunt Yuki took a lot of pictures of us kids and would send it to my mother,” he said. “So I see some photographs with, ‘To Kim. From Yuki.’”
And behind every photo, there’s a story.
“I remember when it was snowing, looking out of the window of our barrack and seeing the snow fall,” he said. “Earlier in the day, we had made a snowman.”
But as Ono grew up, he learned more about the World War II-era camp and saw it for what it was – a prison.
“You're older and you realize, what the heck is going on?” he said. “Why are we being treated this way? … I didn't get emotional at all until I realized and learned the ramifications of … being incarcerated in a concentration camp and having lost our freedom and having to live in a communal situation for nothing we did to deserve.”
Survivors like Ono knew they had to do something to preserve this history. Over the years, fewer and fewer survivors were around to tell their stories.
Ono himself is 82 – he wants to act before it’s too late. “I think it is important to know what we did go through, and appreciate maybe what our elders went through.”
Amache was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, and later named a National Historic Landmark in 2006. But survivors wanted it included in the national park system, like the internment camps Manzanar and Tule Lake in California or Minidoka in Idaho. That required many more boxes to be checked.
Before anything could be done, Amache had to undergo a Special Resource Study. The site had to have national significance, be feasible and suitable for national park status, and have a need for park service management. The study was completed and sent to Congress in October.
New parks also must be approved by Congress. Tracy Coppola works for the National Parks Conservation Association, which fought for the legislation to make Amache a national park.
She said the success of Amache is built on the shoulders of the survivors.
“The larger community has really rallied for recognition for a type of justice that is long overdue and a place to honor the experience that was had at Amache,” Coppola said. “The absolute anchor in this, though, truly is the survivors.
“So like a real local homespun campaign where it wasn't just like people in D.C. saying, ‘We need this.’ It was like all the locals on the ground saying, ‘We need this, we need this bill.’”
After the survivors and descendants spent years pushing, the bill passed in Congress in February, a day before the 80th Day Of Remembrance for Amache on February 19. President Joe Biden signed the Amache National Historic Site Act into law a month later. Coppola said this will provide more resources and funding.
“We're looking at a request for $505,000 for the Amache National Historic Site,” she said. “And hopefully that funding is going to support the first year of operations and five staff at the newly authorized site.”
That number was proposed by the National Park Service a few months ago, but President Biden and Congress still must weigh in.
Before the Park Service got involved, some stakeholders held quarterly meetings and drafted their own plans for what they wanted to see at Amache. Mitch Homma is one of the Amache descendants who contributed to those plans.
He said he will continue supporting Amache no matter how long the National Park Service takes. “We don't necessarily want to stop and just wait for the National Park Service. We're trying to do a lot of things in parallel and involve the park service on our current project, so when they do take over management, it dovetails nicely.”
John Hopper was also a contributor. He’s a local history teacher who has worked for years to preserve Amache, and he has many ideas gathered from survivors.
“We had for years, we had our own master plan,” Hopper said. “We sat down with Japanese Americans and worked this out with the Denver Optimist Club, Derek Okubo, and all them. … [We want to see] walking trails from the water tower all the way through that block with signages all the way down to the cemetery, and then the main gate with the visitor center and with that walking trail as well.”
Ono has more ideas for that list. He wants people to experience firsthand what he had to go through, starting with the lack of privacy in communal bathrooms.
“We even sat in toilets next to each other because they didn't have separate stalls. They just had rows of holes where people sat next to each other to go to the bathroom,” he said. “When you’re of mixed family, having to share the same toilet facilities, that has to be awfully embarrassing. Undignified.”
He also wants to see a mess hall added to the site. It might seem simple, but Ono said it changed the family dynamics in camp.
“The kids would always not want to necessarily eat and stick together with their own family. They would join their friends,” he said. “But, it kind of broke down a normal family structure.”
Some educators want to see classes at the site to teach about the history or create arts and crafts similar to those made at the site.
“For people to be able to go to Amache and learn how to make paper flowers just like they did back in the day … things like that I think would be really interesting,” said Bonnie Clark, a University of Denver archaeologist who does excavations at the site. “And that would be a way for this heritage to have that kind of active component on site.”
Despite these hopes and dreams, the site still has a long way to go.
“The site is not officially established as a unit of the park service until we've acquired the land,” said Kara Miyagishima, the interim superintendent of Amache with the National Park Service. “Once Congress approves the final budget for 2023, then we'll begin the lengthy process to fill critical positions.”
The town of Granada owns the Amache land, but plans to donate it to the National Park Service. That land transaction might not be complete until the spring of 2023 or even later. Until the park service gets the land, it can’t put federal funding into Amache.
“I think it will be a while before the public sees any changes to the site by the National Park Service,” Miyagishima said.
They also need to do a formal survey of the land, which Coppola said could take a few years.
“It's not a huge parcel, but it has been used for various uses and by a lot of different people and in a lot of historical uses over the years,” Coppola said. “There is a map that the congressional bill laid out. But it really needs to be formalized in terms of the boundary and what's on the land.”
Some progress has already been made. A team of key stakeholders and survivors has been put together to discuss the foundation document for the site. That serves as a big-picture outline of what’s important to preserve and interpret at the site. Members plan to meet in-person for the first time in January to discuss more of the details.
Coppola said this document is the anchor for most park sites. “Every park has specific things on the landscape that its staff really builds upon. For Amache, some of those themes are going to be just all the different stories to unpack and all the different ways the land was used and all the different experiences from the community.”
Miyagishima’s goal is to ensure the survivors are an active part of the restoration.
“We're making sure that we're telling the stories that are most important associated with the site and that we're preserving both elements of the physical site and also of the history that really resonate with the Japanese American community and especially the former incarcerated and their descendants,” she said.
Some stakeholders worry about a lack of funding. Hopper said last year, the cost of maintenance and remodeling alone was hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I looked at their proposed budget for next year for that, it's not going to do much,” he said. “But maybe through the years they'll get more and more increased funding.”
Regardless of what happens with the site, survivors and the park service said that upholding this history is the chief goal. Ono agrees.
“It is not knowing the truth that causes a lot of misunderstanding,” he said. “So I think the more everyone can learn about each other, the better.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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