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Bringing Dark Times to Light August 24, 2006

For more than 10 years, National Park Service archaeologist Jeff Burton has worked to excavate, preserve, and interpret the physical reminders of one of the most troubling episodes in American history: the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans in isolated detention camps during World War II.


Burton next to the memorial to the internees at Manzanar National Historic Site (Courtesy Jeff Burton, Mary Farrell, photographer, 2006) [LARGER IMAGE]

When Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, nearly 113,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were citizens, were living in California, Oregon, and Washington. For almost a century, anti-Asian sentiment had been pervasive on the West Coast. Chinese and Japanese immigrants were accused of replacing white Americans in labor jobs, and the large number of Japanese who had become very successful as farmers fueled local resentment. After Pearl Harbor, these prejudices, combined with outrage over the attack, led to a mass hysteria over the "threat" of the Japanese Americans to their adopted nation. Only two months later, on February, 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing his Secretary of War to designate areas from which "any or all persons may be excluded." Beginning that March, all people of Japanese ancestry, including the elderly, the infirm, people of mixed ancestry, even Japanese children adopted by Caucasian parents were evacuated to ten hastily constructed internment camps in seven western and midwestern states. It was there that most of these people were to remain for the duration of the war, trying to build communities and keep their heritage alive in the shadow of institutionalized racism. Even after Roosevelt's Attorney General Francis Biddle voiced opposition to the forced relocation and it was challenged in a Supreme Court case (Korematsu v. United States), the federal government asserted that the need to protect the U.S. from espionage overrode the basic rights of its own citizens.

Burton began his work on Japanese American internment camps in 1993, at the site of the Manzanar camp in eastern California, where more than 10,000 people lived at its peak. Since then, he has worked at other camp sites, most prominently at Minidoka in southern Idaho, which housed nearly 13,000 people. In 1999, Burton documented the structures, features, and artifacts remaining at these and other sites related to the Japanese American relocation. More than 10,000 copies of the resulting report, "Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of Japanese American Relocation Sites," were distributed by the National Park Service; an updated version has been published by the University of Washington Press, and it is considered one of the most authoritative works on this period in history. Burton has received numerous awards for his work; in 2000, he led the first comprehensive study of an American wartime internment camp, for which he was recognized with the John L. Cotter Award from the National Park Service. Burton was also honored with a special recognition award from the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the oldest and largest Asian American civil and human rights organization in the United States, in 2006. ARCHAEOLOGY spoke with Burton about the challenges and rewards of investigating this dark period in American history.

What led you to become an archaeologist? How did you get your start in the field?

I used to go on hunting and fishing trips with my dad and older brothers, but I didn't really like to hunt or fish that much. So I spent the time wandering around and looking for stuff. In Arizona where I grew up, there are many places where there are pieces of old pottery and odd rocks to fascinate a kid. Plus, I've always liked maps, and archaeologists produce a lot of maps. In high school I took an archaeology class and worked on an excavation with the Arizona Archaeological Society, and as an undergraduate I worked on field projects in Northern Arizona and New Mexico. My first full-time archaeology job was with the Inyo National Forest [in the 1980s].


Legendary photographer Ansel Adams captured life at Manzanar on film in a 1943 series. Above, his view of Manzanar from the guard tower (Courtesy Library of Congress) [LARGER IMAGE]

What attracted you to studying the Japanese American internment camps?

When I first heard about Manzanar, I assumed it was like a POW camp. Then I saw some Ansel Adams photographs of Manzanar and realized how far off that assumption was. Some of the "POWs" were smiling young women dressed like the Andrews Sisters! Some were kids, dressed like any American kids, playing and going to school. There was even the U.S. flag in some of the photos. The contradiction inherent in the photographs--Americans in a prison camp--was intriguing, and disconcerting. I wanted to find out more.

Based on the documentary records of the life in the camps, what did you expect to find through archaeological investigation at Manzanar and Minidoka? How did these expectations compare with the actual results?

A lot of the historic records suggested there wouldn't be much left--buildings were dismantled for recycling elsewhere, foundations were razed to clear land for fields, trash was covered up. Former internees who visited the camps often reported how desolate the areas were, how nothing was left. And that's true for most of the big things that defined the camps. For most of us city dwellers, place memories are composed of the shapes and sizes of buildings, the layout of streets, the configuration of landscaping. None of the flimsy barracks were left at Manzanar or Minidoka; roads were overgrown or obliterated or obscured by new roads; the gardens that the internees created to improve their surroundings were long gone. But archaeologists are content with a lot less, and fortunately, humans always seem to leave something behind. For example, a single pier from a post-and-pier foundation could help me determine where the Block 16 mess hall was; when I found a marble or other toy, I found children playing. Elaborate rock gardens and ponds, walkways, and landscaping rocks could be revealed with a little excavation and brush clearing. It's turned out that Minidoka still has remnants of the Entrance Garden, which once included the Honor Roll, a list of internees who had gone off to war. [Internees were allowed to volunteer for service, and served in segregated units in both Europe and the Pacific, where many acted as spies, interrogators, and interpreters.] Manzanar still has some of the original security fence, although it had been modified so you had to know exactly where it was supposed to be to discern it from range fences in the area. At Manzanar, there is also abundant evidence of the people who lived there long before World War II.


Inside a typical barrack room at Manzanar (Courtesy National Archives, Clem Albers, photographer) [LARGER IMAGE]

What has the archaeological record revealed about daily life at the camps? Does it show how residents incorporated Japanese culture and traditions into their lives at places like Minidoka and Manzanar?

The amount of Japanese artifacts, like pieces of fine dishes, is astounding, given the restrictions on what people could bring to the camps, given how the assets of the Japanese Americans were lost at internment, and given how little internees could earn in camp. In some respects, Japanese culture flourished in the camps: if a group is being punished for their ethnicity, they might as well embrace it. We found "goh" pieces by the hospital, suggesting patients whiled away the time with that ancient Japanese game. We found wires near the cemetery, left over from Japanese paper flowers offered at graves. Beautiful rice bowls indicate how families tried to hold on to traditions in spite of the daily mess hall line-up and institutional food. The gardens incorporate many Japanese landscaping elements, such as foot bridges, decorative rocks, constructed "mountains," irregular, and natural-looking shapes.

How did the local people living near the camps typically react to them? To what extent did they have contact with the internees?

Stories and documents indicate that the residents of Minidoka helped in the region's farm harvests, which was much appreciated by the local people. Bill Vaughn, a board member of the Friends of Minidoka , recalls that his father lent his car to the internees so they could commute to his farm from camp. Records suggest that local people near Manzanar did not have a lot of contact with the internees. As late as the 1990s, some old-timers from Bishop [California, a town near Manzanar], were adamant that the internees had been "coddled," and that there never were guards or guard towers. That faulty memory was probably influenced by personal political beliefs, but it corroborates the idea that locals did not interact with the camp to any great extent. The excavation of guard tower foundations helped to dispel the "coddling" myth, and in fact the excavation of the pre-internment camp town and ranch and Native American sites within the Historic Site boundaries helped to bring together elements of the local population who have interest in the diverse Manzanar heritage.

Many Japanese Americans in the camps actually volunteered for American military service, including members of the highly decorated, all-Japanese American 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Compared to many other camps, a disproportionately large number of people at Minidoka volunteered for military duty. Why would so many people volunteer to aid the war efforts of a nation that perceived them as a threat?

Some of the volunteers never lost their faith in their country, in spite of their treatment. Some of the volunteers felt they had to prove their loyalty. Some found camp life so confining and tedious that military service appeared to provide the only avenue to meaningful work and a way to recover their dignity. The reasons that Minidoka had the highest proportion of volunteers undoubtedly reflect complex social, cultural, and political factors. My friend, Jim Kubota, tells me the people interned at Minidoka were just different, being from the northwest. From the archaeologist's perspective, Minidoka seems to have been the least prison-like in its layout, which might have contributed to better morale: the blocks were arrayed in arcs around the North Side Canal, rather than in the rigid grid pattern found at the other camps.


Internees at Manzanar tried to re-create a normal life inside the camp. They constructed a picnic area, a nine-hole golf course, and this Japanese garden, Pleasure Park. (Courtesy Library of Congress, Ansel Adams, photographer)

The Minidoka internment camp is a National Monument, and Manzanar is a National Historic Site. Another detention center, the Tule Lake Segregation Center in northern California, was designated a National Historic Landmark this year, and you worked on preparing its nomination form for that status. This last site was the most controversial of all of the camps. What made Tule Lake different from the other internment centers? Why is it important to preserve this particular camp as a National Historic Landmark?

The Tule Lake Relocation Center, in the far northeast corner of California, was the largest of the ten relocation centers. It was also the longest-lived, not closing until March of 1946 [months after the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945], and perhaps the most emblematic. It was converted to a "segregation center" for internees considered "disloyals" and housed many who openly resisted the U.S. internment policy. Tule Lake had the highest security: the most guard towers, the greatest number of military guards, and a separate jail and stockade for anyone and everyone the administration considered "troublemakers."

Even though these camps have been out of use for more than 50 years, why do you think there haven't been large-scale archaeological investigations of these sites previously?

Most archaeologists are trained to study prehistoric or older historic sites, and usually a site has to be at least 50 years old to be considered for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Listing on, or eligibility for, the National Register governs the treatment of historic properties that might be affected by a federally funded project. So you might not have expected archaeologists to start studying the internment camps until the 1990s, when they turned 50 years old. But the 1990s were a propitious time to start looking at them for another reason: in 1988, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1988, which acknowledged that the relocation had been based not on military necessity, but rather on wartime hysteria, racial prejudice, and failed leadership. Once the government openly admitted the internment had been a mistake, it was easier for the country to recognize the importance of these sites, as a reminder of that ignominious episode. Because so much of the "big scale" physical remains, like buildings, had been removed, the archaeological remains became more important in reconstructing camp layout and activities.

Has the reaction from Japanese American community to your work generally been positive? Are there those who feel that opening up this period to archaeological study is too painful and that it should be left alone?

The Japanese American community has been extremely encouraging--JA organizations and individuals have provided everything from financial support to help in the field, lab, and library. Many have generously shared their archival research and stories with me. The history of the relocation is undeniably painful, but we've found that in most cases, archaeology has a healing effect. Most of the artifacts and features we find relate to everyday life, not the big political issues, and people tend to make the best of everyday life. The archaeological remains can remind people of how they coped, where they ate, where they worked, how they maintained their sanity and their culture. Sometimes, the archaeology can open old wounds, as it often does when I show a former internee exactly where his or her barracks was. But even opening wounds can be healing: to revisit sites where a person was interned can validate their experience and feelings.


The remains of the guard tower at Minidoka today (Courtesy National Park Service)

One project did resurrect a controversial issue that had caused dissension among internees 60 years ago. Over 300 young Japanese American men in the camps refused to be drafted into the military until their Constitutional rights were restored and their families were released from the internment camps. The resisters did not object to the draft in itself, but hoped that by defying the draft they would clarify their citizenship status. Their protest had little effect; most were convicted of draft evasion and sent to federal prisons. Many of these men and their families were ostracized by those in the Japanese American community who thought that serving in the military was the best way to prove loyalty to the U.S. Although President Truman pardoned all the Japanese American draft resisters in December 1947, some continued to be stigmatized by the community. Based on my work, in 1999 the Coronado National Forest proposed naming a new campground, built on the site of one of the prisons where resisters had been imprisoned, after the most famous resister of all, Gordon Hirabayashi. Dr. Hirabayashi is a heroic and beloved figure in the Japanese American community, which came forward with tremendous support for the dedication. There was, however, some initial reluctance to honor the 40-plus draft resisters who were also imprisoned at the same prison camp.

Do you see a difference in priorities or level of concern over this issue between younger Japanese Americans, and older people who may have more direct connections to the period of internment?

I've met many Sansei, third-generation Japanese Americans, who are deeply concerned about preserving the legacy of the internment. In fact, many Sansei are politically active to ensure that its lessons are learned and that the country doesn't make the same mistake again. In some cases the Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans who were interned, used to find it difficult to talk about the relocation, although that has changed a lot in the last 10 or 20 years. I got a letter from a women who said her mom never talked to her about the internment until she got a free copy of "Confinement and Ethnicity," because her mother didn't want her grow up hating the government.

In 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives approved HR 1492, the Camp Preservation Bill, which will "provide for the preservation of the historic sites where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II." It could appropriate $38 million dollars for this purpose. Its companion bill in the U.S. Senate is awaiting approval. Do you think your work on the camps contributed to this awareness, at the national governmental level, of the significance of these sites and the need to preserve them?

Many, many people have contributed to the growing awareness of the importance of these sites, and the need to preserve them. If my work has helped the dedicated and politically savvy folks who have been successful in putting these issues on the national agenda, I'm honored and grateful to have been of use.


Burton at the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah, during the 2002 memorial pilgrimage to mark the fifty-seventh anniversary of the camp's closing. The marker stands in memory of James Wakasa, a 63-year-old internee who was fatally shot by a camp guard in 1943, though it is unclear how old the monument is. (Courtesy Jeff Burton, Mary Farrell, photographer) [LARGER IMAGE]

Do you think most Americans today have a good understanding of this period in American history and what life was like for the detainees? What misconceptions of this era in history have you encountered during your work? Have you been able to use the archaeological record to counter these misconceptions?

Americans' awareness of the internment has improved tremendously in the last 10 years, thanks to the efforts of scholars, teachers, MIS vets, former internees, former resisters, historians, and many, many others. But I have found that even Americans who are aware of the internment are not aware that the federal government itself has admitted that the relocation was a mistake. Others have claimed that the internees were "coddled" and that there were never any guard towers. It is gratifying to uncover the foundations of a guard tower, exactly where the maps say it was located, which has helped to convince some of the skeptics. However, we still have a long way to go in educating the American public: there is still vandalism at the sites, and gross ignorance of the facts of the internment.

What do you think the most important priorities should be in preserving and interpreting the Minidoka and Manzanar sites? How can preservation and education be balanced with tourism?

I think preservation, education, and tourism share common goals and make natural partners. Modern tourists do want to be educated; people travel to increase their understanding and awareness as much as for pleasure. The most important priority is to tell the story of how our own country subverted its founding principles of justice and equality and undermined its own Constitution in a time of war, so that we can try to keep it from happening again. At Minidoka, Manzanar, and the other internment sites, that story can get beyond abstract concepts and platitudes and into the actual places where the internees were confined. Tourists can learn about our fellow citizens who were interned, and experience a little of the wind, cold, and heat that the internees experienced. History becomes more powerful when you tie it to real people, places, and things. Preservation, whether through archaeological data recovery or through careful reconstructions of historic buildings, is critical, to keep the experience as authentic as possible.


Japanese ceramics found in the Minidoka landfill (Courtesy National Park Service)

What kinds of obstacles, if any, did you encounter in the study of these sites? Did you encounter archaeological issues peculiar to recent sites, wartime detention sites, or the Japanese American internment camps themselves?

When you have 10,000 people crowded together for several years, you generate a huge amount of trash. At Manzanar, we had to develop sampling strategies to test the camp dumps for archaeological potential, without exposing the crew to hazardous materials often present in twentieth century deposits. Then, because the buildings were built to be temporary, there is often little left of the structures themselves. In a few cases, the government's plans to convert the relocation centers to farms or veteran housing was so successful that the subsequent clearing and plowing obscured evidence of the camps. But in other ways the relocation centers retain surprising integrity. The camps were purposely placed in remote areas, and most of the areas are still remote, so modern development has been limited. Enterprising local residents recycled relocation center buildings, so there are often vestiges of barracks and other structures still in the surrounding communities.

You received the Albright-Worth Grant from the National Park Service in 2006, and it was reported that you planned to use the grant to produce a popular guide to the Japanese-American internment camps. Why is it important for the general public today to learn about this part of American history? Are there lessons to be learned about the way minority groups should, and shouldn't be, treated during wartime?

Absolutely: we need to remember the fact that an ethnic minority's civil rights were so easily dismissed and abrogated even in this country, where we cherish our Constitution and Bill of Rights. But the lessons to be learned don't apply solely to treatment of minority groups. The internment shows that our Constitution is fragile, especially in wartime, when fear and hysteria can override our sense of moral responsibility and justice. It is astounding to me that even when the government realized that the Japanese Americans would not be a threat to national security, they proceeded with the internment. Was it too late to stop once it was set in motion? Would it have required the government admitting a mistake? When we trade away civil rights for a perceived sense of increased security, we are giving up some of the basic tenets on which this country was founded.

What are some of your other areas of archaeological interest?

I've done work with rock art, Spanish-era missions, and Archaic and Puebloan sites in the Southwest, but lately I've been doing work at prehistoric and historic sites in the eastern Sierra Nevada region.


Burton during excavations at the prehistoric Snowcreek archaeological site near Mammoth Lakes, California. (Courtesy Jeff Burton, Ron Beckwith, photographer) [LARGER IMAGE]

What is a typical day at work with the National Park Service like?

Field days are the most fun: we try to get to our project area early. I like to get an overview of the survey or site area before jumping in, so I might check out roads, hills, other landmarks, to make sure I know how the terrain matches up with our maps and aerial photos. If there's a project proposed, like a new road or campground, we might meet with the project leader to make sure we understand what kind of ground disturbance could occur. Archaeological survey involves a whole lot of walking, often back and forth, so we pay attention to small features in the landscape, like boulders and trees, to make sure we cover all the area. When we find an artifact or suspicious feature, we spend extra time searching in that area to see if it's part of a site. Either way, we record whatever cultural material we find, using maps, notes, GPS units, measuring tapes, cameras, forms, etc. Excavation is similar, but the recording is in three dimensions with more shoveling!

What projects are you working on now? Do you have any projects planned for the future?

I've just completed a survey of the "farm-in-a-day" property that may be added to Minidoka Internment National Monument; and I just finished a National Register nomination for the Poston Relocation Center. I'm always working on updating "Confinement and Ethnicity", to include internment sites I wasn't able to visit for the first edition, and in fact I got a grant to visit the Hawaiian internment sites this past February. I also want to someday condense "Confinement and Ethnicity" down to a smaller sized, traveler-friendly version. After working at the Western Archeological and Conservation Center for nearly 20 years, I've been transferred to Manzanar to finish up [a one-year] temporary appointment. I hope that I can continue working on Japanese American archaeology after my appointment ends next April, because I feel this work is important.

What has been the most personally rewarding part of your work on the camps?

It has been very gratifying to see that the archaeological results have been useful: Congress expanded the boundaries of Manzanar National Historic Site to encompass archaeological features we found that hadn't been identified in the original designation. Documentation of the features remaining at Minidoka gave extra impetus to the designation of that historic monument. The archaeology helps tell this important story. But for me personally, the most rewarding part of the work has been that it's given me the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people. I've heard incredible anecdotes from military veterans and from draft resisters, from former internees and from their now-adult children. So many of them overcame the trauma of losing everything they had, losing even their identities as American citizens. Now they work for justice and the preservation of civil rights, not just for their own ethnic group, but for all Americans, usually with humor, wit, compassion, and intelligence. It's been fun, rewarding, and inspiring.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America