Why You Should Spend Your Spring Break Preserving American Concentration Camps

Halley Sutton

Along the long, lonely highway to Mammoth, California, a popular winter sport destination, just north of the tiny town of Lone Pine and at the base of the beautiful snow-dusted Sierra Nevada, a small turn off leads to Manzanar, the most well-known of the American concentration camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In March 2017, I joined the spring volunteer dig at Manzanar, with very little idea of what to expect. Volunteers were given a vague idea of what we’d be doing at signup and we’d been told to bring our own water bottles, lunches, bug spray, and gloves. No previous archaeological experience was necessary, and our group ranged from first-timers to seasoned veterans.

We spent the days restoring a foundational pathway for the barracks by outlining where previous structures had been, removing sand from landscape features, or working in one of the many on-site gardens. There are an estimated 100 within 814 acres of land originally built by the Japanese-Americans deterred here. Each day ended with enough time for volunteers to explore Manzanar’s history exhibits and drive through the park.

It was a full day of work out under the sun, and the stunning views of the snowy mountain ranges above us in this remote landscape made it hard to imagine that not even a century ago, this enclosed space was home to thousands of detained citizens, who even in the face of indefinite incarceration built gardens, water structures, and played poker in the barracks. The experience brought the reality of Manzanar alive for me in a way that reading about the place never had.

Three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7 1941, hurling the United States into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal, without due process, of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent, mostly U.S. citizens living on the West Coast. Treated essentially like prisoners of war, they were allowed to bring to the camps what they could carry.

Of the ten relocation centers along the West coast, Manzanar was the longest-running and the most well-known. The federal government leased more than 6,000 acres from the city of Los Angeles to build the war relocation center. Manzanar was home to approximately 10,000 detainees, of whom nearly two-thirds were American citizens.

After Manzanar closed in 1945, the barracks and other structures on the site were sold and the land on which Manzanar was built was returned to the city of Los Angeles. Those who had been detained there found themselves free to return home, but the reality often wasn’t that simple. During their absence, the property of many detainees was seized, reclaimed, or stolen by neighbors, and many returned to find there wasn’t a home to return to.

Designated as a National Historic Site in 1992 by federal legislation, Manzanar is open to the public. “Anyone going to Death Valley, or up to Mammoth—just pull off the road and drive through,” says Vanessa Yuille, director of the documentary “An American Contradiction,” following her exploration of the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming where her mother was born in incarceration. Yuille has made more than ten annual pilgrimages to concentration camp sites throughout the United States. She believes the pilgrimages help connect younger generations to the stories of the camps—an important connection, as many of the original detainees have already passed away. “How do we keep telling this story after they die? It’s so important we preserve these stories after the generations who lived through them are gone,” Yuille says.

One way is to increase hands-on exposure to the camps for younger generations and volunteer opportunities at Manzanar abound. For the last 10 years, Manzanar has welcomed volunteers from all over the country to help restore and preserve the site for a few weeks during the spring. Through my time at the dig, I was able to immerse myself in its history, and now I’m helping keep a story that needs telling alive. Manzanar, and other sites of American concentration camps, stands not only for the injustices committed against American citizens seventy years ago, but should stand as a warning for the repercussions of separating children from their families today.

Those not local or traveling to California still have options to volunteer at sites of Japanese-American concentration camps. Many along the West Coast are still open today and in need of volunteers. Places like Heart Mountain, WY, Tule Lake, CA, Granada, CO, and Poston, AZ, all offer ways to get involved.

Though these sites alone may not be enough to prevent history from repeating itself, it’s a lesson we can’t possibly forget. Keeping these memories alive holds power.