Every year on the Saturday before Memorial Day Weekend, people converge in southeast Colorado to visit Amache, the camp where 9,000 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated during World War II.
This annual pilgrimage started in 1975, organized by Denver activists Marge Taniwaki and Russell Endo. It’s always an inspiring journey, which starts at the site of the concentration camp and ends at nearby Granada High School, where local community leaders and the amazing students of the Amache Preservation Society at the high school welcome the visitors and give presentations.
There’s a ceremony with both Buddhist priests and a Christian minister at a memorial to the young men who left Amache to fight for the U.S. during the war that stands in the small cemetery at the camp. The pilgrimage is a wonderful tradition, but at its heart is a solemn gathering.
But this year, on May 21, it’ll be different. There will be a spirit of joyful anticipation in the air.
It’ll be the first time people have visited the site of Colorado’s sole Japanese American concentration camp since it’s been approved to become a U.S. National Park.
HR 2497, the Amache National Historic Site Act, finally made Amache a unit of the National Park System. A bipartisan effort led by Colorado’s Congressional delegation, it was signed into law by President Biden on March 18.
Amache — the official euphemism for the Japanese American incarceration camp is Granada Relocation Center — will join Manzanar (the most well-known thanks to the book and movie “Farewell to Manzanar”) and Tule Lake in California, Minidoka in Idaho and Honouliuli in Hawaii as an official National Park.
That won’t happen right away, though — the town of Granada needs to officially transfer the land to the National Park Service before it’s a done deal. It could become final in 2023, which happens to be the 150th anniversary of Granada.
As it is, the Senate passed the Amache National Historic Site Act with unanimous consent in
February, just in time for the Day of Remembrance.
Once it becomes part of the NPS, Amache will have the resources to more easily preserve and interpret the site for the public and educate people about the experience of Japanese Americans during WWII.
The process of preservation and education has been done by generations of volunteers over the decades. The Denver Optimists Club, led by the late Jim Hada, whose mother was incarcerated at Amache while he and his father farmed in northern Colorado, helped preserve the site and raised the funds to erect the memorial to the prisoners who fought in the U.S. military during the war.
And in the 1990s, a young social studies teacher hired at Granada High School, John Hopper, was astonished to learn that Amache had been on land just outside of town. He began teaching about it to his students, and then the students formed the Amache Preservation Society (www.amache.com) to do the hands-on work of preserving the site in partnership with organizations like the Denver Central Optimists; since 1976, survivors and others who’ve been coming to Granada to visit and donate also help out.
In 2008, University of Denver anthropology professor Bonnie Clarke began bringing students in the summers to conduct archeological digs on the site, coming up with hundreds of artifacts and bits of history reserved among the dry soil and sagebrush.
The Granada students even opened a museum in a donated home a block from their high school and jampacked it with artifacts and displays they created for talks that they give across the region and over multiple states.
Each year, a new crop of dedicated students sign up for the class — Hopper is today the principal of the school and still heads the class and the Preservation Society. Hopper was even given a special commendation by the Consul General of Japan at Denver in 2014 for his tireless work.
Over the years, the students and volunteers have rebuilt a koi pond and a guard tower, as well as a barrack building on the site so that you don’t just see flattened concrete foundations and grassland.
I’ve been on the pilgrimage a few times and got to enjoy a picnic lunch in the town park early on, where I was curious about buildings that clearly came from Amache.
I peered inside a window and saw that it was used by Granada as a storage shed for its parks equipment. I could imagine a family inside, trying to stay warm from the winds blowing in the tar paper by crowding around a stove in the middle of the room.
That barrack, or one like it, is the one now rehabbed and put back in Amache. You can walk inside now and feel the claustrophobia of entire families living for several years in one room with no privacy.
Amache — and hopefully America, though sometimes I have my doubts — has come a long way since 1942, when Japanese immigrants and U.S.-born American citizens were forced to leave their homes and businesses, friends and even pets to live in desolate places (no offense to the farmers and residents of Lamar, Granada and southeast Colorado) in hastily built prison camps for several years. Amache was carefully tended and steps were made to restore it long before the new law was passed.
Let’s hope that as a National Park, Amache can serve an even better role in making sure this type of tragic, racially charged chapter in our history is never repeated.
Gil Asakawa is the author of “Tabemasho! Let’s Eat! A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America,” which will be published by Stone Bridge Press this year. He blogs at www.nikkeiview.com.