Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Anthropology students uncover World War II-era history at Amache

Students from across the country join undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Denver’s Department of Anthropology in a project that also enlists camp survivors and high school interns. They descend upon Amache to survey and excavate plots of land, analyze artifacts and interpret data. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

At first glance, it’s hard to see anything but barbed wire, parched trees and plants armed for battle at Amache, the southeastern Colorado setting of a World War II internment camp for people of Japanese descent. From 1942 to 1945, Amache housed so many people that it qualified as Colorado’s 10th largest city. Today, to the naked orb, it’s just another ghost town.

To the archaeologist’s eye, however, Amache is teeming with possibilities. Just ask the participants in Bonnie Clark’s archaeology field school, a four-week intensive program held every two years. They have uncovered stories in shards of broken glass, punctured cans, dusty marbles, shattered sake cups and rusting barrettes.

For Clark herself, Amache is a personal passion — it’s a trove of data for what she calls “ground-level history,” as well as a reminder of what happens when a nation forgets its values.


Exercise in collaboration

It’s 11 a.m. and a scorching 104 degrees in late June 2012. With an hour left before the scheduled lunchtime retreat to air-conditioning, the members of Team Surrender crouch under a dying shade tree. Time to rehydrate, chat about the morning’s accomplishments and prepare — psychologically and physically — for the last burst of surveying.

The team’s moniker captures its stance in the face of blazing heat and a seemingly insurmountable pile of work. “We surrender,” they joke, and then they get back to it.

They — and members of the other student-led teams working the site — get back to it every weekday morning from mid-June to mid-July. After lunch, they assemble at the Amache Museum in nearby Granada. There, they work on exhibits, assist with collections management and help interpret the camp’s story for future generations.

Under Clark’s direction, the field school meshes a rigorous academic experience with a community heritage project and a cross-generational exercise in collaboration. Students from across the country join undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Denver’s Department of Anthropology in a project that also enlists camp survivors and high school interns. They descend upon Amache to survey and excavate plots of land, analyze artifacts and interpret data. Along the way, they learn a little about teamwork and a lot about the contributions historical archaeology can make to our understanding of events.

“Why do you do archaeology on a site people remember?” Clark asks, repeating a question she encounters frequently. “Well, they don’t remember everything.”

Nor do they necessarily talk about what they do remember. The internees at Amache were notably circumspect. Kelli Tademaru, a high school intern from Los Angeles, pursued the Amache opportunity because she wanted to learn more about her family’s experiences at the camp. Her grandfather was born there, so his memories were minimal, but her great-grandmother, who remembers it well, doesn’t care to talk about it. “They want to forget,” Tademaru says.

To ensure that the rest of us don’t forget, participants in the field school tackle a hefty list of goals aimed at preservation and building knowledge. In summer 2012, students helped support graduate research projects and Clark’s ongoing inquiry into Amache’s gardens. They also worked to clear and survey a plot of land slated for an important installation: the return of an original barrack. The barracks that once covered Amache were sold and dismantled soon after the camp closed in October 1945. Today, nothing remains of them but the concrete slabs that served as foundations. The restored barrack will be accompanied by a replica of a guard tower, designed and built from archival photos.

Clark’s teaching goals for the program include proper methodology for field work, as well as introducing students to such innovative practices as ground-penetrating radar, a technology adapted by DU anthropology Professor Larry Conyers to find, map and analyze buried archaeological materials.


Protecting a landmark

Clark has worked at Amache since 2005, a year before it was declared a national landmark. Knowing that landmark status would bring a surge in visitors, she wanted to accelerate efforts to identify and protect archaeological resources. She also wanted to give would-be archaeologists the chance to work on a significant project. With these goals in mind, she launched the field school in 2008, and since then, 27 undergraduate and graduate students and 11 volunteers have contributed to the digging and surveying at Amache.

The work, admits intern Abby Hopper, a 17-year-old from Granada, can be tedious, but the hours of meticulous data collection all seem worthwhile at the end of the day. Hopper’s father founded the Amache Museum, and over the years, she has met many Amache survivors and their descendants, who visit in hopes of making sense of the relocation experience.

Like Hopper, Bri Colon, an anthropology and French major at Santa Clara University, and Stephanie Chan, a graduate student from Stanford, savor the contributions they can make to history. It’s rewarding, Colon explains, to be part of a project that will continue long after they graduate. And, Chan adds, their work serves as a critical reminder: “This is not just Japanese-American history. It’s also American history.”


Persevering with integrity

Clark believes any history of Amache begins not with the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor but with the mid-19th century arrival of Chinese immigrants in California. From the beginning, the Chinese were greeted with suspicion — an attitude transferred to the Japanese as soon as they stepped foot on U.S. shores.

Suspicion and distrust were only stoked by Pearl Harbor. In response to the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for creation of internment camps for persons of Japanese descent. Amache, one of 10 such camps, opened in August 1942.

Amache was constructed almost overnight — its square mile of scrubby terrain confined by barbed wire and dominated by seven guard towers. Within that inhospitable space, the residents gardened, raised children, taught art classes, published a newspaper and created a community.

“The attitude was to make the best of everything,” says camp survivor and field school volunteer Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker, who was 3 years old when her family was uprooted from California and dispatched to Amache. The Japanese have a saying, she says: “shikata ga nai,” which means “nothing can be done about it.” Since nothing could be done about it, she adds, internees were determined “to persevere with integrity.”

The archaeological record at Amache testifies to that perseverance and illustrates some of the ways residents made the best of everything. Clark’s research on gardens is a case in point. Amache residents so wanted to beautify their new surroundings that they pooled their resources to buy and plant trees. They even journeyed to the nearby Arkansas River to dig up cottonwoods and transplant them in the camp.

Outside their barracks, internees created ornamental and kitchen gardens from an assortment of improvised pots, river rocks carted from the Arkansas and materials discarded from the canteens. “It continues to amaze me the way they would take broken tile and make a pathway,” Clark says. “These were plots of dignity and ingenuity.”

One of the most surprising finds at Amache, she adds, is canna pollen. Because canna plants and bulbs were not readily available in Colorado, Clark suspects that internees wrote to friends and relatives in Hawaii and asked them to send bulbs. That very act, she says, testifies to their spirit.

Stephanie Chan, meanwhile, is intrigued by modified artifacts, those adapted for multiple uses. One of these — a metal barrel converted to a hibachi — indicates that the internees built community by cooking for celebrations and groups. They also expressed themselves through artistic works, many of which are on display at the Amache Museum.

“They did some really creative stuff. What they really did was take garbage and turn it into art,” Chan says. They also used garbage — giant mayonnaise jars, for example — for display cases.

Still other artifacts offer insight into state of mind. Broken ceramics for sake suggest that, in the one suitcase allotted each individual, camp residents brought items that asserted their identity. They also indicate that, though alcohol was not allowed at the camp, residents were not averse to sneaking adult beverages into their quarters or even brewing them under the noses of camp administrators.

As one student pointed out, Clark says, what could be more American than sneaking alcohol into a forbidden zone?

Clark cheers the resistance revealed in such artifacts. “Here were these people, during the war, incarcerated for being too foreign. And what do they do? They bring Japanese things with them.

“This place is all about who belongs,” Clark adds, scanning the unfriendly landscape. That is why she has come to think of Amache as “a site of conscience.”


Bringing the past to life

Anita Miyamoto Miller and Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker were toddlers when their families were ordered to abandon their California homes and relocate to Colorado. Their memories of camp life are fleeting: a tortoise smashed by a camp vehicle, bare light bulbs in the barrack, looming guard towers, a ride to the canteen on top of parental shoulders and meals of hot dogs and beans. “Once in a while, as a treat, we would get Spam,” Miller recalls, marinating the words with distaste.

Since summer 2010, Miller and Tinker have volunteered with the field school in hopes of learning more about what their families — always reticent on the topic — endured at Amache.

The septuagenarians not only work in the triple-digit temperatures alongside students, they tell their stories and bring the artifacts to life.

“It helps to have Anita and Carlene around to humanize the experience,” Bri Colon says.

“In trying to find out about ourselves and our families, we were willing to come back,” Tinker says. And willing to rough it. “I think you have to suffer a little bit to learn about your history,” Miller adds.

Tinker has located the concrete foundation of the structure where her family bunked — barrack 11G 4C. Her cot was right inside the doorway. She can stand there now and begin to imagine what life was like.

Tinker’s interest in Amache has grown over the years. Recently, she inherited a collection of Amache memorabilia, including camp newspapers. She donated these to the library at California State University, Fresno. To ensure that people everywhere could access the materials through the institution’s digital collections, she spent untold hours scanning thousands of documents and keystroking information.

For the teams working at Amache, every artifact is important, but some make the heart beat a little faster.

Take the teapot lid with a Japanese pattern. It was found, in a small scatter of glass and porcelain, in block 11H by Kevin Davis, a University of Denver junior majoring in anthropology and religious studies.

“It was really exciting to pull it out of the dirt,” he says, noting that the lid’s design stands out in the midst of more nondescript items. Who did it belong to? Where did it come from? How was it used?

“The history behind the objects,” he adds. “That is what I find really fascinating.”

The survey work that yields such finds involves painstaking attention to every square inch of a site. Walking side by side, team members systematically scour a site for shards of glass, tin cans or broken porcelain. Whenever an artifact is found, students and volunteers mark the exact spot with a colored flag and a label. Once the surveying is done, they return to the flags and begin collecting data. They measure, describe and photograph the article on a log sheet. Then, they return the artifact to where it was uncovered and leave the flag in place. Later, the flags are mapped so that artifacts can easily be found again.

“Sometimes we’ll do a catch and release,” says Peter Quantock, a University of Denver graduate student and crew leader. When an article is particularly unusual, it will be transported to the field lab for additional analysis. Afterward, thanks to the flags and map, it will be returned — or released — to its original location.

Quantock estimates that 99 percent of the artifacts found are left on site. As Clark sees it, catch and release honors a critical responsibility to the site. It also represents a sea change from how archaeologists once worked. “We used to mine our sites,” she says, but today’s professionals prefer to leave materials in place, in part so they can serve the research needs of future archaeologists, but also so they can honor the integrity of the site.

“My feeling,” Clark says, “and I feel really strongly about this, is that when internees and their families come out here, I want it not to be picked clean.”


Dignity under stress

Many visitors to Amache do little more than drive through the site. It takes mere minutes to read the information displays and circle the compound. But for the visitor who wants to make sense of a disconcerting chapter in American history, a singular story reveals itself in broken tiles, rusting cans and chips of porcelain.

Where the casual eye sees only refuse, Clark and her students see testimony. They see the resilience of the human spirit, the creativity of people who worked to make the best of a bewildering situation.

“There are ways to maintain your dignity under stress,” Clark says. “This is a place where we can see how one group made that happen.”

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