‘Words Have Meanings’: Visiting a Japanese Internment Camp

Students in Ryan Buyco's Introduction to Asian American Studies class file off the Colorado College van after a three-hour ride from campus and step into the small, nondescript building in Granada, Colorado, that serves as the Amache Museum and research center.

Outside on Colorado's eastern plains is a farming community of approximately 600 people, located only a few miles from the Kansas border. Inside are artifacts that recall the daily life of more 7,500 Japanese Americans who were forcibly imprisoned at the Granada Relocation Center from 1942-45.

The contrast is startling.

The Granada Relocation Center, better known as Camp Amache, was one of 10 relocation centers in the western interior of the United States, ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to house Japanese Americans during World War II. Buyco and 13 students crowd into the museum, taking in the articles that defined the lives of those imprisoned at the center. There are suitcases in which the internees brought their belongings and porcelain tea sets that were smuggled in. There are posters that deride Japanese Americans. There is evidence of everyday life: photos of football games, a football helmet, and commencement programs.

Buyco and the students talk about language, noting the evolution of what the community has been referred to over the years: a concentration camp, an internment camp, Camp Amache, and the Granada Relocation Center.

"Words have meanings and connotations," says Buyco. "There is power behind the terms we use to describe historical events. Calling Camp Amache an 'internment' or 'concentration' camp has the potential to reshape not only our understandings of American history but our current political circumstances as well."

The class also explores the one-square-mile area that, at the peak of occupation, supported 560 buildings. Today only a reconstructed barrack, water tower, guard tower, and small cemetery remain. It's difficult to imagine the site, covered in sagebrush, thistle, and cactus, once was the 10th-largest city in Colorado.

Buyco is the first full-time scholar to teach Asian American Studies courses at Colorado College. "I decided to approach the course as a celebration of the field, given that this is the second time Introduction to Asian American Studies has been offered on our campus," says Buyco. "When we think about Asian American Studies, we usually think of California or the West Coast. I decided to include this trip to Amache to locate our Asian American Studies class within the context of Colorado. I received a lot of advice from Professor Jason Weaver [Psychology], who also brings his students to Amache in his course on Japanese Americans during World War II. I thought it would be a great learning opportunity for students to go to Amache, especially given the flexibility of the Block Plan."

Sam Hum '21 says the everyday items in the museum really affected him. "That football helmet; it's such a community thing," he says. "It's all the little things that are lost. This is a part of history that America is trying to forget." A computer science and math major from San Diego, Hum says he's also an Asian Studies minor. "I always felt American even though I was the only Asian in elementary school. But this is a part of history I had no idea about."

The museum also has a large map showing the buildings of Amache as it was when operational, and many who were formerly interned there have come back, placing pins in the barracks to indicate where they were housed.

"The pins in the map," Hum said. "That's part of a larger narrative that will continue to grow as more people come back to the site."

"Most of my classes are predominantly white, so being in a space where that is not the case is refreshing," says Wayan Buschman '20, an English major from New York City.

Josh Raizner '20, a political science major from Houston, says he took the class because he has a gap in his understanding of Asian-American relations. "Asia is powerful and it's in the news; in the public discourse. I need to know how to properly talk about it," he says.

"While I am only one scholar, I do represent an entire intellectual community, and so I frame this introductory course as an opportunity for students to be inducted into this exciting field through daily readings and interactive activities," says Buyco. "Beyond the trip to Amache, this class has several guest speakers, a social media project on Instagram (#ccasianamstudies), and even a karaoke night where I cater food from a local Filipino restaurant."

Emily Chan, co-director of Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies, notes that Colorado College plans to increase the offerings of Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies. "More than 8% of the student body identifies as Asian-American and Pacific Islanders," she says. "Students have been enthusiastic about these new courses. Our next year offerings will include Introduction to Asian American Studies, Asian Diasporic Literature, and Asian American Psychology."


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