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Future Archeologists Hope to Uncover Mysteries of Amache

Pacific Citizen, News feature, Lynda Lin Posted: Jun 28, 2008

This summer, a group of young aspiring archeologists will comb the former site of Camp Amache for artifacts to literally bring internment history back to life.

It's been dubbed "CSI: Amache," after the popular CBS television series. But this version isn't highly stylized or scripted - it's based on the real life human drama of nearly 8,000 prisoners who once called the Colorado camp their home.

And the cast of characters is not the usual slate of people commonly associated with camp reunions and pilgrimages. They are college students like Greg Zuckerman, 22, who has no personal ties with the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, but looks forward to digging for forgotten treasure under a hot summer sun.

"It's a once in a lifetime experience to be a part of these people's lives," said Zuckerman about the June 16-July 11 University of Denver field school in historical archeology at Amache, also known as the Granada Relocation Center.

The month-long field school will train Zuckerman to survey and excavate as well as engage with site visitors during a national JA conference. A few weeks before heading out to Amache, the University of Denver senior who has never visited an internment camp before, says he feels a little pressure.
"It's nerve wracking ... but it's really important to show exactly how they lived."

Tangible Evidence

This summer field school is the first major step in what university officials call a long-term archeology and heritage project at Amache. The former internment camp located near the town of Granada in southeastern Colorado has the greatest integrity as an archeological site among the 10 main War Relocation Authority camps.

Unlike other camps, Amache has never been redeveloped. Parts of the site had been used for cattle ranching and as trash dumps, but it has largely been inaccessible to the public since WWII ended.
"The tangible evidence is really there," said Dr. Bonnie Clark, an assistant professor at the University of Denver who will be leading the summer field school.

It's almost as if the Amache of today - with its remnant landscaping, largely intact foundations and scattered artifacts - were left in the exact same way as the day its last JA resident left.

Over the years, the integrity of the site has already been compromised by bottle-hunters and passerbys who take away "souvenirs" without knowing their historical value. So archeologists faced an urgent dilemma, especially after Amache's National Historic Landmark designation in 2006 attracted more curiosity - as more people pass through, the site's integrity is endangered.

Up until now the Amache Preservation Society, a group of local high school students and their teacher John Hopper have maintained the site. But there is only so much they can handle, said Clark, so the University of Denver came to the rescue.

"We didn't need to reinvent the wheel here," she added.

In 2003, the town of Granada was awarded a State Historical Fund grant to survey the site and create an historical site management plan. Back then, surveyors just looked for all the surface artifacts and developed a detailed site map.
This summer, it's time to dig.
One of their goals is to find living evidence of planted trees and landscaping cultivated by the internees. During the war years, Amache internees produced many agricultural products included potatoes, onions and corn. Although many of the plants and trees may no longer be visible, Clark hopes to find remnants still in the ground to study the archeology of the historic gardens.

"It wasn't great soil, but since most of the Amache internees were from farming communities in Los Angeles and the Central Valley, they turned their barren land into something that really worked," said Clark. "They were really challenged in an unforgiving environment."

Attracting the Youth

Summer is a tough time to ask a student to endure sweltering heat to dig gingerly in the dirt, but a group of potential young archeologists have answered the call. The team is a small and select group made up of about four undergraduate students and two graduate students. Some high school students from the preservation society will also be participating in the field school.

"We're going to keep them hopping!" said Clark.

For a month, the students will have to wake up early to work out in the field in the mornings and then move their work into the Amache Museum in the afternoons. Since it is a field school, students will also be graded. Clark is looking for reliability and consistency especially with note taking. Because in archeology, you're only as good as the notes you take.

But in exchange for their hard work, the students will literally walk in the footsteps of history and possibly hold the same items in their hands that were last grasped by former internees. For field school participant Dana Ogo Shew, 30, this will be a very personal experience.

Shew's grandmother Sadako Hamasaki is a former Topaz internee. Growing up, "camp" was a casual reference like a vacation spot, not a barbwire prison. Hamasaki was in her teens when she was incarcerated. At 80, anger and bitterness still sometimes bubbles to the surface.

Because of Shew's family history, she is inextricably linked to Topaz. And that connection has made her closer to Amache.

"When I first found out I was going to be working on this project, I was trying to figure out how to separate the research from my own personal past. It felt weird that we were academically studying something that I am," said the Yonsei graduate student.

But then she realized that her family connection could actually enhance the experience. She plans to tap into her family's memories to interpret her field study findings. And Shew is not alone - she is among some of the younger generations of future leaders hoping to connect with the past.

Archeological projects have taken place at the other camps - including last month's dig for rock garden remnants at Manzanar's Merritt Park - but Amache continues to excite young preservationists.
The students are passionate about the project because the community is passionate about it, said Clark. "They see themselves a part of something larger."

"I think young people are drawn to this time in history out of respect to the people who experienced it. It's not exactly our proudest moment in American history," said Zuckerman.

Many of the APS high school students want to tell the internment story to as many people as possible, said Jennifer Otto, a graduate student who will also be involved in the field school.

"Many of them also really enjoy the physical work that goes along with the preservation of the camp itself, whether it be mowing the lawn or putting up signs," added Otto, 26. "I think it is pretty amazing to have a class the students are able to take that is so relevant to the history of both the area and the U.S. as a whole."

"I'm happy that there is that interest in the younger people," said Gary Ono, 68, a former Amache internee. "Especially since it's dying out with older people."

This summer, Ono is taking his 16-year-old grandson, Dante Hilton-Ono to Amache for the field school. There, the former professional photographer who coined the "CSI: Amache" name, will help chronicle the events and maybe even dig a little.

"I just thought it would be great to get the family connection," he said. "Maybe Dante will get interested."

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Articles by Lynda Lin

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