Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Part III

Preservation - an ongoing process

By Luke Anderson

July 13, 2016

The preservation of a place is never really complete. Even when a building is saved from demolition and renovated, it still faces constant pressure from daily use, neglect, and the looming possibility of being torn down in the future under different ownership. Even after a building has been torn down or a site has been redeveloped, preservation still does not cease. Preservationists make efforts to remember those lost places because of the value they still offer. The preservation of Heart Mountain has been a mix of both saving what is left and remembering what is gone. Many elements of the former internment camp have been lost forever, disassembled and relocated by the hands of weather, time, and people. The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) has tracked down and saved what does remain of the camp including returning the original barrack and root cellar. What has been lost forever is brought back to life by HMWF through its interpretive center. Preservation at Heart Mountain is by no means complete, and HMWF continually preserves the site every day through education, research, and maintenance. 

Preservation of what has been lost at Heart Mountain happens in a number of ways. The interpretive center tells visual stories of what day to day life was like inside the camp. The center’s location on the actual site of the internment camp is extremely important. A strong sense of place is essential to telling a powerful story. The memories of the things and people that have been lost are resurrected in the interpretive center, which sits in the same physical location where those stories and buildings existed themselves.

The annual pilgrimage to Heart Mountain also speaks to the power of stories and place. Former incarcerees and their families converge on the site every summer to remember what happened and share stories about their own experiences. It is an opportunity to remember and discuss publicly what the preservation of the former camp means to Wyoming today. To HMWF executive director Brian Liesinger, the pilgrimage, as well as the foundation in general, is a platform to “engage the public in a meaningful dialogue about what it means to be a citizen, to defend the constitution, and stand up for social justice today.” Highlighting the event every year are appearances and speeches by retired United States Secretary of Commerce and Transportation Norman Mineta, who was interned at the camp when he was a young boy as well as retired United States Senator Alan Simpson. Mineta and Simpson met when Mineta was living at Heart Mountain and Simpson visited with his Boy Scouts troop. They were ten years old when they met and stayed in contact ever since. 

The historic preservation story at Heart Mountain is far more complex than the simple stabilization of a giant chimney or the excavation of a historic root cellar. While the physical preservation is of course a crucial component to historic preservation, Heart Mountain’s story also appeals to other primary beliefs of the historic preservation movement – that the power of place has an impact on the way we experience history and that the stories and legacies of our history, good and bad, have value in the present and the future. Brian Liesinger told me:

“It is a jumping point for engagement about recurring social injustices since WWII, such as refugees, Muslim Americans, etc. We must make sure that history is part of a dialogue about wholesale disparagement of any group of people of any superficial category.”

Visit heartmountain.org for more information.

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