Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Hosts Annual Pilgrimage

September 7, 2015 • Feature, Homepage Feature, In-depth

Former incarcerees and their families as well as those from across the nation gather to remember and teach others about their time in camp.

Shig Yabu during the HMWF Pilgrimage banquet.

Shig Yabu during the HMWF Pilgrimage banquet. Photo: Stan Honda

By Shig Yabu and P.C. Staff

Former incarcerees and their families, those associated with other camps, dignitaries and visitors from all corners of the nation gathered at the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Pilgrimage to remember and learn about the historical site on Aug. 21-22.

“All Heart Mountain Pilgrimages have been special, but this year was memorable for having several incarcerees and representatives from different confinement sites across the country,” said Brian Liesinger, HMWF Executive Director.

Members and visitors to the Relocation Center were given large nametags upon their arrival and were then encouraged to talk amongst each other. New and old acquaintances were made at the center on the first day, and conversations about the camp and incarcerees’ lives during and after incarceration were freely discussed. Former incarcerees Bacon Sakatani and Keiichi Ikea drove together to Heart Mountain from the Los Angeles area. When they arrived at the pilgrimage, they were able to meet old friends and make new friends among the thousands imprisoned there. Many were curious to ask which block another person lived on, finding and making lost connections over the years. Some asked whether others were former incarcerees or if they had attended school at Heart Mountain.

  • (From left) Sam Mihara, Shig Yabu and Dr. Takashi Hoshizaki were all incarcerated at Heart Mountain. Yabu and Mihara lived on Block 14, the same block as iconic camp artist Estelle Ishigo. Photo: Sam Mihara
  • Shig Yabu during the HMWF Pilgrimage banquet.
  • (From left) Shig Yabu and Dr. Takashi Hoshizaki tour the barracks during the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage this year. Photo: Sam Mihara
  • HMWF Vice Chair Douglas Nelson presents a Root Cellar dedication plaque to Jane May (center) and Carolyn Sakauye, daughters of Eiichi Edward Sakauye. Photo: Stan Honda
  • Fred Miyauchi wears a Heart Mountain cap. Photo: Stan Honda
  • Visitors tour a concrete structure that was once the Mess Hall at the Heart Mountain Camp. Photo: Stan Honda
  • Judge Raymond Uno and Bacon Sakatani at the dinner program this year. Photo: Stan Honda
  • Audience members during this year’s pilgrimage listened to the stories and addresses given by former incarcerees like Norman Mineta and listened to a live spoken word performance by G Yamazawa. Photo: Stan Honda
  • (From left) HMWF Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi, Former Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, former U.S. Sentator Alan K. Simpson, HMWF Vice Chair Douglas Nelson, HMWF Executive Director Brian Liesinger. Photo: Stan Honda

This special gathering also gave opportunities for older generations to share their experiences with younger visitors.

Darrell Kunitomi’s parents were incarcerated in Heart Mountain and found it “wonderful to meet new people who have returned to the camp.” Kunitomi added that it’s also “fascinating to see mixed-race kids who arrive, young Americans born long after the war and see their reactions” when learning about the incarceration experience.

On Aug. 21 at 10 a.m., the “All Camp Fair” welcomed delegates from various relocation centers. The room was filled to capacity with a multigenerational audience listening to speakers talk about confinement behind barbed wires and what it felt like to stand before a guard tower. HMWF Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi, HMWF Vice Chair Douglas Nelson and Liesinger led the session.

In addition to personal and historic narratives, Densho along with representatives from most of the other nine incarceration camps, were in attendance to support the pilgrimage and the work of HMWF. Densho’s Executive Director Tom Ikeda talked about the organization’s efforts to “better work together to more broadly share the World War II Japanese American incarceration story.”

As an example of group collaboration, Ikeda shared how Densho worked with the HMWF to digitize and make available online over 300 photographs taken by Yoshio Okumoto while he was incarcerated at Heart Mountain during World War II.

That evening, the Pilgrimage Banquet opened with a Q & A session led by HMWF Board Member Dale Kunitomi and current HMWF Advisory Council Members Bacon Sakatani and Judge Raymond Uno.

Uno was JACL National President from 1970-72, and he served as legal counsel from 1972-74. Today, Uno is chapter president of the Salt Lake City JACL.

“I always say he was a loyal American veteran who served his country and died a prisoner of war of the United States Government,” said Uno about his father, Clarence Uno, during the pilgrimage, according to the Cody Enterprise. “It’s kind of ironic.”

Honorary ambassadors, former Heart Mountain incarcerees, HMWF board and advisory council members and those such as La Donna Zall, who wasn’t incarcerated but as a girl saw the last train leave Heart Mountain, received red carnations to wear during the dinner banquet.

Former Superintendent of the Manzanar Historic Site Les Inafuku was recognized for his contributions at Manzanar and as the first Japanese American to be in charge of a National Park. The HMWF awarded Inafuku with a brick honoring his leadership.

The evening’s program also included a digital presentation by Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Multimedia Producer Hana Maruyama. Maruyama was also a former staff member of the HMWF and is the granddaughter of a former Heart Mountain incarceree. The digital story was a narrative anchored around her grandfather and three generations of the Maruyama family in the aftermath of incarceration.

In addition, a special tape listening was given of Joy Teraoka. Teraoka was the first singer with the George Igawa Orchestra that once performed in Heart Mountain during incarceration, providing jazz music and dance.

On Aug. 22, the pilgrimage continued to the Interpretive Center for an opening ceremony. Notable speakers like former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta addressed a crowd of former incarcerees, their families and community members.

“We welcome those who come here on the pilgrimage,” said former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson during the opening ceremony. “‘Pilgrimage’ is usually a journey to a foreign land, but the journey of your forbearers was a journey to a foreign place in your own land.”

Liesinger shared news regarding Heart Mountain’s recent efforts in preserving the newly installed root cellar and the relocation of an original Heart Mountain barrack back to the National Historic Landmark site. The original barrack was once part of Iowa State University since the late-1940s.

The barrack permanently made its move to the Heart Mountain National Historic Landmark site this summer after a 81-mile move. Currently, HMWF is requesting donations to replace the old roof and make repairs on the barrack.

“We do our preservation with the power of place in mind. We move buildings, restore structures and preserve artworks and artifacts knowing that their presence here will move visitors in a deep and meaningful way that could not be matched if they were located away from Heart Mountain,” Liesinger said.

Mineta, a former incarceree of Heart Mountain, echoed a similar sentiment but also urged the crowd to “keep reminding people in the future to make sure something like this never happens to anyone else again.”

G Yamazawa performing on stage at the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage this year. Photo: Stan Honda

G Yamazawa performing on stage at the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage this year. Photo: Stan Honda

Following Mineta’s address, the Cody High School choir performed “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land,” accompanied by guitarist Dan Miller. Audience members were moved, some to tears. A powerful performance was given afterward by spoken word artist George Masao Yamazawa Jr., titled “This Is For” and “Rocks.” Yamazawa investigated the histories of his ancestors and dove into what it means to be American. Yamazawa, also known as G Yamazawa onstage, was the 2014 National Poetry Slam Champion and has shared the stage with Sonia Sanchez, Michelle Kwan, Danny Glover and U.S. VP Joe Biden.

A brief and special visit was made by a Boy Scout troop during the Opening Ceremony where they helped raise a flag on the flag pole in front of the Interpretive Center.

Sakatani, both a former incarceree at Heart Mountain and a Boy Scout member, saw “a group of well-mannered, clean-cut boys.” He told the Pacific Citizen, “It brought back memories of my days as a Boy Scout at this very same place. I hope my parents felt proud of me as I felt proud of these boys.”

At 15 years of age, Sakatani joined the  Boy Scouts in 1944 and was part of Troop 313 during his time in Heart Mountain Camp.

“At first, we young boys my age did not have anything to do but to roam around the camp in gangs of a dozen,” Sakatani remembered. But this all changed when the Boy Scouts were introduced in Heart Mountain. “This turned out to be the most memorable part of my three-year stay at the camp,” he said.

Sam Mihara was incarcerated in Heart Mountain and toured the site. He said, “Walking around and inside the barrack brought many memories of life within the Heart Mountain camp. I found some original signatures by carpenters dated 1942 inside the walls of the barrack.”

Mihara currently speaks to schools, colleges and communities across the nation about his experience, educating the public on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and also on his own personal experience as a boy growing up in Heart Mountain Camp. At the pilgrimage this year, Mihara noted that “there is strength in numbers and this group is growing.”

A viewing was held of the “new” barrack that was moved 80 miles from the hamlet of Shell, Wyo., after a nation-wide grassroots fundraising campaign. The 300-foot-long structure is currently unsafe to enter, but future plans to reinforce the interior are underway.

The Heart Mountain root cellar was one of three and is the last of its kind. It was recently dedicated to the daughters of Eiichi Edward Sakauye, who, as the assistant farm superintendent at Heart Mountain from 1943-45, oversaw the use of the cellar and agriculture program. Sakauye’s daughters, Carolyn Sakuye and Jane May, were recognized during the ceremony and were there to accept the dedication on his behalf.

“Thanks to all of our supporters who made the preservation of these historic structures possible. These artifacts are essential to the power of place and are precious reminders of the important history of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II,” Higuchi said.

An afternoon panel was held for incarcerees from Topaz (Hal Kato), Tule Lake (Hiroshi Shimizu), Heart Mountain (Fred Miyauchi), Poston (Frank Yamamoto) and the Tashme confinement camp in Canada (Ken Suzuki).

The Pilgrimage was sponsored by Studies Weekly, the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, the Japanese American Citizens League, the Tule Lake Committee and several local organizations.

“What Heart Mountain means to me, personally, is one of love and sadness to our family,” Mihara said.

The 2016 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage will be held on July 29-30, during which the HMWF will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the opening of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.

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