The photo was taken in 1943, but I recognize the landscape I was raised in; I would recognize it anywhere and often think that I do: a single glimpse of sagebrush, or silos, or low, dusty mountains, and I’m home again. The place where I grew up is still mostly farmland, and the mountain on the horizon is, of course, still there. It has a name—Heart Mountain, a little peak beloved by locals. Occasionally people hike it, but it’s a steep, difficult hike, so mostly we look at it, name our businesses after it, and print its silhouette on our merchandise. Heart Mountain Realty, Heart Mountain Eye Care, Heart Mountain Cattle Company. Home is where the Heart is, my mom always says.
People outside of Powell, Wyoming know Heart Mountain for something else. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the Secretary of War to designate parts of the country as “military areas.” Heart Mountain was one of seventeen designated military areas. It held over 14,000 of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced by the newly formed War Relocation Authority to abandon their homes after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I’ve heard it called many things: a relocation center, an internment camp, a confinement site, a concentration camp, a prison. Whatever we call it, the fact remains that these people were told to report with their belongings, or else. They’d committed no crime. They sold their furniture, closed their businesses, and brought what they could carry. Their bank accounts were frozen. Their properties abandoned. The man above—the one who kneels in a freshly ploughed field with soil spilling from his outstretched hands (he is checking for moisture before planting in the spring, and the sandy cloud before him rises, then falls like an unanswered prayer)—that man was one of them.
Not everything is a metaphor. Some things are just real. A heart that skips a beat, a breathless state: these are things we know even if we treat them as symbols. But for now, we must only look at this photo. It’s black and white because I made it that way, because the color version is too loud, and the eye does not know where to land. Here, in grayscale, you see what I want you to see, which is my grandfather talking to his son-in-law (my father) about the cameras in the display case. Other things escape your notice: the wisp of hair over my grandpa’s left shoulder (hair that belonged to my grandmother), or even the portrait of George Washington on the back wall. Welcome to the Homesteader Museum, an unassuming log building dedicated to the history of my small town.
Most often I come in the summer when I have weeks to spare. The cool building offers shelter from the dry Wyoming heat. The curator, whoever she is, doesn’t so much curate as she collects, adding doodads and bobbles wherever she can make space. There’s a glass case full of arrowheads, another with a model of farmland in miniature. In one corner is a small assemblage of salon equipment—chairs where women once sat to set their perms with electric curlers and the wires that hung from them. The walls hold old photos of the main drag, the storefronts recognizable but the road unpaved. There are early renditions of the washing machine, the kind with a crank and two rollers for wringing out clothes. The museum makes no mention of the camp down the road. Mannequins wear old Powell High School band and cheer uniforms, bookshelves hold every PHS yearbook ever printed. Those yearbooks hold my photo, my mom’s photo, my grandma’s photo, and my grandpa’s photo—all of us young and fresh-faced.
The photo’s archival description notes that this young incarceree is from California, that this is his first winter, and that he is learning to ice skate. It does not tell us what the boy misses about California and the home he left there. We can only look at his snow-crusted mittens and wonder. Wonder what he left behind. Wonder if he’s frightened. Wonder if he’s cold. The sweater does not seem warm enough. I recall winter days of my childhood in Wyoming, days when the recess bell froze solid, its ring transformed into a small, tinny sound no longer loud enough to call us back. On those days, I sometimes snuck through the vacant halls of the elementary school to skip recess. No need, then, to wonder: the sweater is not warm enough.
This photo, along with many others, was taken by Tom Parker, the director of the War Relocation Authority’s Photography Section (WRAPS). From 1943 to 1945, WRAPS served as the public relations and propaganda arm of the mass incarceration effort, taking thousands of photos of incarcerees and the camps. As Dr. Lane Ryo Hirabayashi—a son of incarcerees and a scholar of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII—put it, one of the primary objectives of WRAPS was to “illustrate the ‘humane’ treatment” of incarcerees and prove that “although conditions were spartan to say the least, there were no outright human rights abuses such as torture or murder being carried out on the unfortunate prisoners.”
Here I give up the pretense of a colorless world to include a photo—of what? It’s nothing. Some copper vessels on a windowsill in Copenhagen. I took this photo on a trip to Denmark in 2016 when I was twenty-two years old, one of the first vacations my husband and I took together. There, we visited the churches where some of my ancestors from my mother’s side of the family were baptized and married in the first half of the 19th century, just before immigrating to the United States for a new life and a new religion. A mysterious little pilgrimage. I can’t say what compelled me to return to Denmark that summer. Not obligation. Not devotion. Maybe a wish for another home. I took photos of the churches where my ancestors were married and christened beneath vaulted ceilings and whitewashed beams. But here, a little bit of warmth: a radiator on an early, jet-lagged morning, just before a quick walk to the bakery where the girl behind the counter spoke to me in Danish and I, embarrassed, asked English?
Estelle Ishigo, a white woman, lived as an incarceree at Heart Mountain with her Japanese American husband, Arthur. Her memoir, Lone Heart Mountain, is out of print, but a copy of the original, typed manuscript is available online. She wrote of leaving: “The house was emptying strangely.” Among the things Estelle, Arthur, and six-year-old Kenji must leave behind—a dog. From her memoir:
His master could find no one who would keep this little dog—because his master was Japanese.
He could not be left alone in the empty house to starve.
So, they took him out for one last walk—to a veterinary.
They paid the bill, then carried their dog home and laid him in a little grave under a tree while Kenji watched with wide, dry eyes, with questions none could answer.
He, he. They, they. It isn’t until the fifth page of her brief memoir that Ishigo first uses “us” or “we.” There are no instances of “I” or “me” in the entire book. Instead, Ishigo writes around herself. The resulting narration feels disembodied, omniscient, transient: In September the first snow fell. The only desire now was to exist.
Copenhagen again. Here, my husband and I shared a twin-sized bed, and restless, I watched the light go from cold to warm on the ceiling above, the delicate molding, the gauzy drapes. Denmark, for all its charm, was not home. We’d traveled here from Utah, the place where we both took classes and worked and lived. Driving through the Danish countryside, we stopped at several family history sites. I’d thought this might feel like a homecoming, but two hundred years take a toll.
A great irony of my Denmark trip is this: according to my DNA report, I am only one-percent Danish. The majority of my ancestors hailed from Germany, France, and the UK. My ancestors Carl Julius Lehn and Bodil Maria Hansdatter are among my only Danish ancestors, but something about them compels me. Six generations ago, in 1854, they immigrated to the US. The spelling of their surname Lehn was changed to Lynn. They journeyed across the plains with a team of oxen, going west. Carl died on the way, buried somewhere along the banks of the Platte River in an unmarked grave. He was one of many pilgrims who didn’t survive the trip across that harsh American landscape. Bodil carried on without him, finished the journey and died in Arizona in 1889. She was 79 years old.
In Denmark, I am far from home. I miss, as I always do, the plains of Wyoming.
Ishigo wrote, “It is in the minds and souls of human beings to love their home-land.” I love my homeland. I take photos like this on road trips home when I am feeling sentimental about what it means to return. This was taken in the Wind River Canyon, on a road I’ve driven countless times on my way back to the ragged shadow of Heart Mountain. But twelve miles from the house where I grew up, Ishigo and thousands of others were imprisoned. My homeland, a prison. This is not an easy thing to reconcile.
The instinct, then, is to convince oneself that, somehow, all of this was not so bad. Many of the WRAPS photos from that time (photos I’ve chosen not to display here) were so obviously taken with justification in mind: in one, boys crawl over each other to form a human pyramid, “a favorite recreation,” its description notes, “of the younger evacuees.” In another, incarcerees play baseball, an eager crowd of incarcerated spectators behind them. In another, a family sits playing cards on folding chairs outside. There’s a radio to the side, barracks behind them. The women smile at the camera. In the right frame of mind, photos like these are evidence of the strength and resilience of the human spirit. In the wrong frame of mind, photos like these make the camps seem like jovial places, something that need not weigh so much on our collective conscience, and we are free, again, to love our homeland.
In the church where Carl Julius Lehn and Bodil Maria Hansdatter were married, a likeness of Christ hangs from a cross on the wall. His ribs protrude. The cloth around his loins is painted gold. Just below him, there’s a baptismal font, a small, ancient-looking granite basin. We’d wandered in from the street and had the building to ourselves, so there was no one to ask, but a pamphlet confirmed that the font was indeed the church’s oldest piece of equipment, “from a time of the church about which we know nothing.” I admire the pamphlet writer’s frank unknowingness. I was taken with the little granite basin. This church was the site of Carl and Bodil’s marriage, not either of their baptisms, but I allowed myself to imagine that it had been. I picture an infant Bodil held over the basin in the arms of a pastor, drops of water at her hairline that gleam when they run down her face and into her ears. She would have worn white. She would have cried.
At restaurants, servers greet us with a quick hej. It sounds just like hey.
Only a few of the barracks at Heart Mountain remain. When the relocation center closed, many of them were pulled apart, used for lumber. And in some instances—I don’t understand the mechanics of it—people took entire barracks, trucking them to their own property where they were placed on a foundation, a house built around them. When you drive through the Bighorn Basin where I’m from, the barrack houses are easy to spot if you know what to look for. They have the same basic footprint, the same low roofs.
Once for an elementary school project when I was nine or ten, I built a model of a barrack from stiff cardboard my father glued together. In class, we’d learned the basic history of the camp down the road. It was a history that fascinated me and everyone else in the class. All of us could point out the site from the roadside, and some of us passed it each day on our way to school. I recall the teacher telling us that when the incarcerees arrived at Heart Mountain, the barracks had been bare. The only furninshings the government had provided were cots, two blankets, a coal stove, a bucket, and broom. Anything else they needed—cupboards, dressers, tables, chairs—they made themselves from leftover wood scraps or bought with money they saved from their scant wages—$12 to $19 per month—wages they earned working as doctors, nurses, cooks, and farmers. One half of my model—the “before” side—was bare but for a little wooden stove and bed. The other half—the “after” side—was filled with brightly upholstered dollhouse furniture from my mother’s extensive collection of small, beautiful things. On presentation day, I put my model on my desk and kids circled past, nodding their approval. The teacher, rightfully, explained how I’d missed the mark: they’d made the barracks home, yes, but not like that.
What remains now at Heart Mountain are a few barracks and a large, brick chimney where the hospital used to be. The barbed wire fencing remains, too, and one of the posts where armed guards sat. Because Heart Mountain is a National Historic Landmark site, there’s now a small museum with exhibits, a walking path, and a garden. The museum itself was designed to look from the outside like an old barrack, but its sturdy exterior is so obviously made of tougher stuff than the actual tarpaper barracks ever were.
I stood in one of the empty, original barracks. The windows were thin, and the wind swept through the room as if the walls were merely apparitions, ghosts of a past not far gone. The barrack itself seemed to wail. I heard, too, the plain echo of my footsteps: a hollow sound signifying nothing.
The archival description reads, “Symbolic Heart Mountain towers at the end of F street, the main thoroughfare of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.” Symbolic, I wonder, of what? Not everything is a metaphor. Some things are just real.
In a panel discussion in the summer of 2000, Japanese Americans formerly interned at Heart Mountain spoke of their experiences.
Doug Sagara said, “I was embarrassed. I was humiliated … I got very angry.”
Bacon Sakatani said, “I will never forgive the United States for what they did to my parents. They lost everything.”
Kara Kondo said, “I’ll always remember the sound of the iron gates closing behind you.”
Tell me again what the mountain symbolizes.
Cicily Bennion is a writer, PhD student, and Voertman-Ardoin fellow at the University of North Texas where she specializes in creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in Hotel Amerika, Under the Gum Tree, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. Cicily is the essays editor at American Literary Review. She lives in Texas with her husband and young son.
This essay would not have been possible without the resources available through the Densho Digital Repository, Densho Encyclopedia, Fresno State Library’s San Joaquin Valley Japanese Americans Collection,
UCLA’s Estelle Ishigo Papers Collection, https://www.heartmountain.org/, and the Powell Tribune.