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Cody, Wyoming’s Heart Mountain WW II Interpretive Center Approaches Fifth Anniversary

CODY, Wyoming, May 2, 2016 – “Could this happen again?” is the question staff at the Heart Mountain World War II Interpretive Center want visitors to ask themselves, and as the Center approaches its fifth anniversary, the answer to this introspective question remains elusive.

Located 14 miles northeast of Cody, Wyoming, the Interpretive Center is situated on desolate land that was a WW II confinement site where 14,000 people were forced to live after Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. Most of those bound for Heart Mountain were American citizens of Japanese heritage living on the West Coast. The first of them arrived in August 1942, and the last were released in November 1945.

Arriving primarily from California and Washington, these incarcerated Americans were clustered in small, rapidly built quarters after being forced from their homes. As a result, they lost their homes, jobs, businesses and most of their possessions. They came with only what they could carry, and they had no idea how long they would be confined. They lived their lives, created a community, established life-long friendships, and more than 800 of them joined the military and fought for the country that had stripped them of their freedom.

A replica space of a family dwelling

The Center’s displays include a replica of space that would have housed a whole family. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki, courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.

“As these incarcerees quickly discovered, personal liberty can be tenuous during challenging times,” said Shirley Ann Higuchi, a daughter of incarcerated Japanese-Americans William I. Higuchi and the late Setsuko Saito Higuchi, and chairwoman of the 17-member board of directors of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) which oversees the Center. “By preserving and memorializing the site and through an array of interpretive exhibits and educational outreach, we hope that every visitor will be vigilant and help ensure that Americans are never again stripped of their liberties solely because of their heritage.”

High-Profile Supporters
Among the many advocates for the mission of HMWF are retired Congressman and Secretary of Commerce and Transportation Norman Mineta, an American of Japanese descent whose family was incarcerated at Heart Mountain when he was a boy, and Alan K. Simpson, retired U.S. Senator and a long-time resident of Cody. The two met as boy scouts – scouting was popular in the camps – and became life-long friends. Another high-profile Heart Mountain supporter was Senator Daniel K. Inouye, who served 49 years in the U.S. Senate and was the highest ranking elected public official of Asian descent in the country’s history. Inouye served with the all-volunteer Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team during the war. Inouye passed away in 2012.

Historic photo of farmers working in a field planting crops

Many of the residents were farmers from California whose first order of business was to plant crops that were familiar to camp residents. Photo courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Okumoto Collection.

All three were on hand to dedicate the opening of the Interpretive Center in 2011, and Inouye delivered the keynote address. Last month, Simpson and Mineta presented the annual Daniel K. Inouye Distinguished Lecture at the Library of Congress, addressing the protection of civil liberties, national security and their long-time friendship which began at Heart Mountain. They will both be featured speakers again at this year’s Heart Mountain Pilgrimage.

More About the Center and its Anniversary
Dedicated on August 20, 2011, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center continues to tell the stories of the Americans who were incarcerated there through photographs, artifacts, oral histories and interactive exhibits. It is located on a National Historic Landmark site that also includes original camp structures, a war memorial built by incarcerees and an interpretive walking trail. The Center has won numerous awards, including the 2015 Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence, 2012 Interior Exhibit Award, 2012 Excellence in Exhibition Award from the American Association of Museums.

A historic birthday photo of a child's birthday party

Residents tried to live as normally as possible. This photo was taken during a birthday party. Photo courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Okumoto Collection.

The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center will celebrate its fifth anniversary during the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage on July 29 and 30, 2016. Events will include a silent auction of Japanese antiques, dinner banquet, special exhibits and featured speakers.

In addition, there will be a digital storytelling workshop hosted by Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Jeff MacIntyre and David Ono as well as HMWF Executive Director Brian Liesinger. Participants will learn how to create – and share with future generations – their own digital stories about this important period in U.S. history. Saturday’s events will include admission to the center, a special exhibit and lunch. Speakers will include Norman Mineta and Al Simpson as well as playwright Luis Valdez. His current play, “Valley of the Heart,” brings a multicultural perspective to the incarceration as it delves into the relationship between a Japanese and a Mexican family in Santa Clara Valley following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese family’s forced removal to Heart Mountain.

“This is a historic year for us,” said Brian Liesinger, executive director of the Interpretive Center. “We are also marking many important achievements in preserving this site and educating the public. We have contributed to saving the hospital smokestack, a local landmark and national reminder of this history; we’ve rescued an original Heart Mountain barrack and brought it back to the site for visitors to experience; and we are preserving a root cellar built by incarcerees that illustrates their industriousness and impact on this land and its people.”

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Yellowstone Country is comprised of the towns of Cody, Powell and Meeteetse as well as the valley east of Yellowstone National Park.
The area of Park County is called “Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country” because it was the playground of Buffalo Bill Cody himself. Buffalo Bill founded the town of Cody in 1896, and the entire region was driven and is still heavily influenced by the vision of the Colonel. Today its broad streets, world-class museum Buffalo Bill Center of the West and thriving western culture host nearly 1 million visitors annually.

The Park County Travel Council website lists information about vacation packages, special events, guide services, weather and more. Travelers wishing to arrange vacation can also call the Park County Travel Council at 1-800-393-2639.

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The Heart Mountain World War II Interpretive Center