THROUGH THE FIRE: Making New Friends at the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage



For the second year in a row, I went to Wyoming to attend the annual Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, and for the second year in a row, the beauty of the Heart Mountain peak —distinctive to camp survivors, locals and newcomers alike — was shrouded and faintly visible.

All of us, including Heart Mountain’s own Bacon Sakatani, who has gone to every pilgrimage since its inception, traveled many difficult miles to get to the remote spot in the high desert. We were met by angry weather gods who wanted to teach us about the inclement weather patterns that our ancestors endured. Despite the wind that ripped through our summer clothes, the cold that greeted this year’s pilgrims was mild compared to the below-30 temperatures faced by 10,000 Japanese Americans who first stepped off trains more than 70 years ago.

Last year, it was dense haze, and this year it was smoke from several fires that raged from Idaho, Washington and Montana, blanketing the familiar peak. As we sat shivering in the windy desert air, a local choir sang “This Land Is My Land,” former congressmen and friends Alan Simpson and Norman Mineta spoke, and young poet G. Yamazawa recited an all-new camp poem paying wonderful tributes to those once imprisoned there. The audience included such notables as KABC’s David Ono, APAIC’s Floyd Mori, Densho’s Tom Ikeda and key representatives from other camps.

Camp pilgrimages, like camp reunions, once provided camp survivors a way of renewing old friendships made in camp, but as Nisei began to die off, there seemed to be less reminiscing and more connecting to new friends among pilgrimage attendees. This year, it seemed only a handful of incarcerees dotted the audience, most of whom were comfortable recounting the childhood fun of skating on the frozen ice or hiking up the nearby mountain.

Those “kids” who once scurried through the snow are now well into their 80s and some even into their 90s. A crowd of Sansei and Yonsei friends, relatives, and strangers listened with due respect, hoping to capture these memories so that they not be lost forever.

Visitors view the new barrack during the annual Heart Mountain Pilgrimage. (Photo by Stan Honda)

Visitors view the new barrack during the annual Heart Mountain Pilgrimage. (Photo by Stan Honda)

Events such as these also provide a wonderful opportunity for Nikkei to socialize and, to use a modern-day term, “network” with others with common roots. This year’s event was no different, but was made even more lively as people from other camps were invited to discuss the formation of an all-camps consortium. Initiated by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation under the auspices of the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) federal grant program, the goal was to join camp forces in the ongoing struggle for recognition of this terrible time in our nation’s history.

Despite the somewhat formal nature of this meeting, it was the jovial meet-and-greet aspect of the weekend’s activities that attracted me the most. As true for all JA gatherings, you will always meet someone who knows someone who is related to someone and on and on. The once familiar question “What camp were you from?” has now been replaced with **“Where** are you from?” It’s a wonderful way of starting conversation and making connections that are inevitably “small-JA world” present.

For example, when I discovered that an 85-year-old woman I got to know at the pilgrimage lived in Santa Maria, I quickly found out that she knew my niece who lives there.

On my return to Los Angeles, I heard from my friend Nori Uyematsu, whom I met at a similar event. He gleefully wrote me about all the connections he had made at the pilgrimage. Among them, he met a guy from Fresno who knew a former classmate, and a woman from San Gabriel who knew his niece; in turn, he knew the woman’s Orange County brother-in-law, and so on and so on. What began as an opportunity to see his old friend from Salt Lake City, Raymond Uno, whom he met on his very first day at the Pomona Assembly Center, turned out to be a delightful occasion to meet new ones.

Another highlight of the event for me was the unveiling of the brand new barrack building recently moved from Shell, Wyoming, to the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center — a distance of more than 80 miles. Its purpose is to serve as a concrete and tangible reminder of what living conditions were like for the more than13,000 people incarcerated there.

Sitting on almost the exact spot where military police buildings once stood in 1942, this particular barrack was converted into dormitories after the war and used by Iowa State University at their field station. A complete 20’ x 120’ foot building saved from demolition, it is an example of what happened when the camps closed, and barracks buildings were moved from the campsite to provide housing and storage throughout the area.

My recent interest in the barracks buildings relates to a JACS-funded project that traces what happened to the buildings when the camps closed. As I heard stories from local homesteaders who still live in some of these barracks, I was reminded of their undeniable importance to the present landscape as well as to camp survivors who lived in these buildings. They continue to provide an authentic and tangible focal point for many, many more stories yet to be told.


Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.





1 Comment

  1. Darrell Kunitomi on

    It was another great event up in Wyoming, just as Sharon describes — everyone, no matter what age or camp or circumstance should consider attending other assorted pilgrimages and gatherings (and participating, everyone can use your volunteer help), whether for Heart Mountain, Manzanar, Tule Lake and/or other confinement sites.

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