Magazine Feature / People

Thesis explores cultural identity at WWII Japanese internment camp

Japanese internment camp

Camp Amache, the WW II Japanese internment camp, circa 1942. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library Western History Collection.

To Stephanie Skiles, shards of porcelain scattered in the southern Colorado soil tell a story — one of ethnic heritage, identity and cultural revitalization.

The anthropology master’s degree candidate has spent the last two years studying the expression of cultural identity in the historic archaeology of Camp Amache, a World War II Japanese internment camp.

Amache — located near Granada, Colo. — was one of 10 relocation camps built to house Japanese Americans following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Amache was the smallest of the camps, housing more than 7,000 people at its height. 

The facility was closed in the autumn of 1945, and the buildings were dismantled and sold. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

“Many of the people at Amache came from southern California and were used to great ethnic diversity,” Skiles says. “For some, this was the first time that they had seen so many people who looked like them and who had the same cultural heritage.

“They thought they were Americans,” she says. “Yet suddenly they were told that they weren’t Americans — that the government didn’t trust them and that they were different. Many of them arrived at the camp in an identity crisis.”

Skiles hypothesized that because they had been interned for their heritage, Amache residents would be fearful of expressing that heritage through their belongings and customs. She examined food-related items sprinkled throughout the site, specifically the government-issued white U.S. Quartermaster ceramics, traditional Japanese porcelain, and tin cans modified with a mysterious perforation pattern on the bottoms.

Last June, Skiles led a volunteer crew of archaeology students in a weeklong surface survey. She marked out four 50 x 50-meter grids at the site, and the team then walked the grids inch by inch, counting and photographing the artifacts found on the surface. Her crew sifted through soda, medicine and sake bottles, shoes, toys and car parts to locate remnants of ceramics and modified cans. She then examined the artifact distribution and analyzed the ratios of U.S.-issue ceramics to Japanese ceramics, and modified to unmodified cans.

“The internees were only allowed to bring two suitcases with them to Amache, and yet we found numerous examples of Japanese ceramics,” said Skiles. “They must have either thought it was important enough to bring with them, or they had it shipped to them somehow.”

Skiles will showcase some of her research in “Confined Cuisine: Archaeology of Culinary Culture at Camp Amache,” an exhibit in DU’s Museum of Anthropology. The exhibit will feature text, site photos and objects Skiles has borrowed from the Amache Preservation Society.

“Food is an important part of daily life, ritual and family tradition. By looking at food items, Stephanie was really examining the idea of heritage,” says DU anthropology Assistant Professor Bonnie Clark, who is working to set up a community-based field-school at Camp Amache in addition to advising Skiles on her research.

Ultimately, Skiles’ archeological survey contradicted her original hypothesis.

“The huge presence of Japanese ceramics at the site showed me that the internees weren’t covering up their heritage,” Skiles says. “They were in a way rebelling against their confinement — telling the U.S. government that they weren’t going to hide their culture or their identity.

“This was a time of cultural revitalization. They were showing the government that they were part of the United States and that they were good people.”

“Confined Cuisine: Archaeology of Culinary Culture at Camp Amache”
Through June 8 
Museum of Anthropology
Sturm Hall, Room 102
Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.

For information call 303-871-2543.

This article originally appeared in The Source, May 2007.

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