2008 National Conference » Essays

WHOSE AMERICA? WHO’S AMERICAN?

By Abbie Salyers

I have spent the last three years as a graduate student traveling to various sites around the country and in Canada, France, and Italy studying how the World War II Japanese American experience is represented through museums, monuments, historic sites, and popular culture representations. In a fitting climax to my research travel, I recently had the opportunity to attend the “Whose America, Who’s American? Diversity, Civil Liberties, and Social Justice” conference in Denver, Colorado. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity, particularly to the representatives and sponsors who supported scholarships for teachers and students, like me, to attend. Since I began my research on Japanese American history as an undergrad seven years ago I have received an overwhelming amount of support, and the experience of attending this conference is certainly more proof of this encouragement. The conference was part of the Japanese American National Museum’s “Enduring Communities: The Japanese American Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah,” a three-year project to encourage schools in these five states to include the Japanese American experience as part of the standard school curriculum. The conference boasted something for everyone from sessions on a variety of subjects to activities aimed at children and young adults and even shopping in the “Community Marketplace.” The event was well-planned and executed to prevent any confusion or difficulty and to allow visitors ample opportunity to explore and enjoy the various sessions, events, and activities. The Hyatt Regency Hotel was a beautiful and well-suited location, both in the amenities and space provided inside, as well as its situation within downtown Denver’s cultural and shopping district. The location, events, activities, sessions, and fellow attendees combined to make the conference a professionally, educationally, and personally rewarding experience for me and undoubtedly many others.

Perhaps the two speakers that I enjoyed the most during the course of the conference were journalist Adam Schrager and Professor Dr. Patricia Limerick. Mr. Schrager’s speech on Colorado’s wartime Governor Ralph Carr, who unapologetically condemned the discriminatory treatment of Japanese Americans and welcomed them to his state at the cost of his political career, was both informative and inspiring. Most people find themselves facing a decision between what is right and what is popular at some point in their lives, and it is people like Mr. Carr who provide a model to emulate for fellow politicians and average citizens alike. Mr. Schrager was clearly both knowledgeable and passionate about his subject, and I was only too willing to stand in line with others to receive a signed copy of his work, The Principled Politician: The Ralph Carr Story.

Dr. Limerick’s lecture was a similarly engaging and educational lesson on the significance of the Japanese American redress movement as related to the Truth and Reconciliation Movements of the 1990s, particularly that of South Africa. As Dr. Limerick pointed out, political and social scientists and historians have yet to draw connections between the successful redress movement of the 1980s and the later movements that followed around the globe. While she sees this as a significant oversight on the part of political science authors, she was more concerned with stressing the uniqueness of our US democracy compared to the governmental systems of other countries that have since generated reconciliation movements. Dr. Limerick explained that the necessity for such a redress movement proved that our government is not infallible, and that despite its strengths it is important for Americans to “renew their vows” to the US Constitution, which seemed especially fitting as she delivered her lecture on July 4. Though Mr. Schrager’s speech demonstrated man’s ability to attain democratic ideals while Dr. Limerick’s speech demonstrated the potential for democracy to fail, both presentations were powerful messages of faith in the democratic process and the ability of such democracies to admit a wrong. I learned a great deal about Ralph Carr and I hope to incorporate many of Dr. Limerick’s ideas into my analysis of the redress movement, but I feel that I benefited equally from the personal challenges presented by their encouragement to stand up for what is right and to make amends when I fail to do so.

The educational benefits of this conference to my research were significant, but I believe that the educational opportunities for future generations that were cultivated at this conference were even greater. Perhaps it is a bias due to my particular research subject of museum studies, but I found myself to be most enthusiastic about the large number of sessions and activities that focused on the preservation and presentation of history through historic sites and museums. While school education was obviously the focus of the Enduring Communities project, it also seemed that education through sites, exhibits, and objects was a significant focus of the conference, which was both fitting for a conference sponsored by a museum and encouraging to me in my own research. From the “All Camps/World War II Japanese American Historic Sites Meeting” to the “Preserving a Historic Place: Nihonmachi in California and the Interior West” sessions, it was obvious that preservation was an important subject to the conference organizers.

In addition to the related lectures, however, I was especially excited by the number of museum exhibits that were featured as part of the conference festivities. The display, “Minoru Yasui: Civil Rights Icon Exhibit,” at the University of Colorado Denver’s Auraria Library, was a great example of not only individual and local history, but also civil rights and Japanese American history more broadly. Yasui is perhaps best known as one of four Japanese Americans whose cases made it before the Supreme Court during the war, however his role as a civil rights activist continued in Denver long after 1945. As the exhibit shows, Yasui was active in the local JACL, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Red Cross, as well as numerous civil liberties and law orientated organizations, and he even had the Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Award named in honor of him. In another example of a wonderful exhibit that was part of the conference, JANM presented “Beyond the Call of Duty: Honoring the 24 Japanese American Medal of Honor Recipients,” as an ongoing display in the midst of the conference activity rooms. The exhibit described the brave actions of soldiers in the face of discrimination and harrowing war situations and honored the recipients, many of whom did not receive their due until decades after their military service.

Two additional off-site activities also educated visitors about the vital role of Japanese Americans in Denver, Colorado, and around the world. David Hays, the archivist at the University of Colorado Boulder library, provided a small group of us with a detailed tour of the campus buildings that were used by the Navy Language School, which taught Japanese to over 1,650 American students, both men and women, who then translated documents, interpreted conversations, and interrogated Japanese prisoners and soldiers. As we walked the campus, Mr. Hays shared interesting facts and personal anecdotes about the students and their Japanese American teachers, or Sensei, whom he clearly respected. We saw the student’s dorm, the library rooms where they had class, and the theater where they staged a number of reviews, and we even had the pleasure of hearing from two Language School graduates, Reverend Dr. Robert Bruns and Dr. Donald Willis. In the evening after enjoying the UCB tour, I had the opportunity to attend a reception and open house at the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology, where a graduate student, Jennifer Otto, created and displayed her exhibit, “Negotiating Preservation.” This small but informative exhibit displayed wonderful artifacts and text about the Amache Camp, and it also explained the history of preservation efforts at the site, which is not a common theme for a museum exhibit. Perhaps the most engaging and unique part of her exhibit was the “Table of Memory,” where visitors were encouraged to write down their own thoughts and reflections on the site and its preservation efforts.

I frequently fear that the average museum visitor pays little attention to how and/or why an exhibit or historic site is created. Since I began working with museums and studying public history, I have found myself to be more interested in the motivations, biases, and various perspectives that shape sites, but I am also increasingly interested in encouraging visitors to ask the same underlying questions. Museums and historic sites do not sprout from the ground fully created, and in fact, no matter how hard we try to be objective every exhibit displays a point of view or advocates a certain position. I do not think this is a problem, I simply think it is important for both the developers and the visitors to be aware of the ongoing discussion and debate that exists within the creation and constant re-development of museums and sites. The more public involvement, the more perspectives will be represented, and the more accurate and multi-faceted the exhibits will be. I believe that Ms. Otto’s exhibit is unique in that it encourages viewers to consider the preservation of Amache, which will hopefully inspire thought and perhaps participation in other interpretation and preservation efforts at different sites and museums.

After experiencing the UCB tour as well as the Minoru Yasui, Medal of Honor, and Amache exhibits, I had the opportunity to travel to Amache to see the site itself on the final day of my conference visit. This experience was one of the most memorable of my entire trip, and perhaps best represents the significance of education and preservation. Under the leadership of Amache High School teacher, John Hopper, the eleventh and twelfth grade students of the Amache Preservation Society have helped preserve and interpret the site, while also traveling around the state and even to Japan to tell others about the importance of Amache and what it represents in American history. The students who delivered presentations to our group were well spoken, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about preserving a piece of history and passing it on to others. Of all the places that I have visited in the last two years, no other site has had such a unique or inspiring group of volunteers. The level of accomplishment of the students in the project was especially proven to me through the changes that I saw at the site since my previous visit in March 2007. In little more than a year, the site boasted new covered interpretive displays, picnic tables, and a plaque honoring the site as a National Historic Landmark. The grounds are now open to the public, though they were locked last year, and numerous signs throughout the site label various locations from the original camp. The mutual benefit gained by both the students and the site through the work of the Amache Preservation Society is incredible and represents the long-term effect that education can have on students and a community.

Though I enjoyed the opportunity to study the representation of Japanese American history and education in Colorado, I could not help but recognize the national implications of the conference itself. In all of my research, I have found that the Japanese American community is far from homogenous and is in fact composed of numerous communities, separated by generations, geography, and life experience. This conference and its two predecessors, the All-Camps Summit and Life Interrupted, represent a coming together of many of these small communities in a way that few other events can. It was encouraging to see representatives of numerous camps, military units, organizations, and academies from all walks of life and from literally around the world, gathered in one place to share their thoughts, goals, and experiences with the others. In fact, even my attendance at the conference as a twenty six year old Caucasian student from Houston, Texas showed the variety of attendees. I would argue that perhaps more than anything else, this was the reason for the success of the conference. The title, “Whose America? Who’s American? Diversity, Civil Liberties, and Social Justice,” suggests the complexity of defining America and Americans, and I believe it is through truly diverse yet unified gatherings like this conference that we can celebrate differences and share in the important task of passing on our heritage to protect the civil liberties of our future.

Abbie Salyers is a Ph.D. Candidate in military and public history at Rice University, where she is currently working on her dissertation entitled, “The Internment of Memory: Forgetting and Remembering the Japanese American World War II Experience.”