GRANADA — Mitch Homma stood on the weathered concrete slab that is all that remains of the barracks where his father and his grandparents lived 80 years ago inside the barbed wire of the Granada Relocation Center, a euphemism later shortened to Camp Amache to designate one of 10 incarceration camps for Japanese Americans hastily erected in the wake of the 1942 attack on Pearl Harbor.
In one hand, Homma held an old photograph of three siblings — Hisao Homma, the young boy who’d become his father, in the middle — posing next to a scrawny sapling. With the other, he pointed to the thick, towering trunk rising just a few feet away, leafed out in the warmth of a southeastern Colorado spring.
“That,” he said, “is this tree.”
On the weekend before Memorial Day, the annual window for Amache survivors, descendants and their supporters to make their pilgrimage to the site, the theme of enduring flora permeated a Saturday of steady traffic through the historic grounds. Visitors heard lessons about the trees that now tower above the cactus, coarse prairie grass and low brush on the choppy landscape, where a square-mile grid of stubborn foundations hints that more than 10,000 people cycled through the facility after being uprooted from their mostly California homes.
But while Amache closed after about three years and its buildings dissolved into the swirl of history, the trees still bear witness — as does a wild, so-called “Amache rose” that improbably took root in the inhospitable soil and, even more improbably, continues to bloom in a closely guarded location all these years later.
Also bearing witness Saturday were the pilgrims, who this year arrived in unusually large numbers — about 250 strong, buoyed by the camp’s designation as a National Historic Site, which brings federal resources and oversight to what for decades has been a volunteer labor of love.
But this year, another theme emerged. Mingling among the Amache descendants, Dale and Bobbie Hamilton, with their 9-year-old daughter Nya tagging along, listened closely to the windswept land and its stewards telling their tragic story. They are descendants of Cheyenne and Arapaho victims of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre, which unfolded 46 miles away on a site that also features “witness trees,” as the oldest are known.
“We had similar treatment by the U.S. government,” Dale, a retired Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer, said as he joined the crowd gathered for a memorial ceremony at Amache’s cemetery. “There are so many parallels. We’re here out of respect.”
After prayers and chants by a Buddhist priest, Dale joined the queue to lean long-stemmed flowers against the cemetery memorial.
The couple has driven past the entrance to Amache at least once a year on their way from their home in El Reno, Oklahoma, to the Wind River reservation in Wyoming for Arapaho ceremonies. But they never turned in.
This year, they explored the idea of “shared identity” with the survivors and descendants of Amache, who welcomed them to a pilgrimage that added an activity to its usual itinerary: On Sunday, dozens of the Amache descendants planned to return the respect by driving to the Sand Creek site, where they could continue the dialogue.
“I have learned a lot,” Bobbie said during a massive potluck lunch Saturday at the Granada School between camp tours. “And it tugs at my heart, too, to know that the descendents are here. From what I saw today, their religious recognition of their ancestors is similar to what we do at Sand Creek. I think we have that connection spiritually with them even though we haven’t met.”
“As far as Sand Creek,” Dale observed, “it’s been over 150 years, but when descendants gather, there are always tears shed. It’s the same here. We still have that connection.”
New chapters opened
Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker stepped carefully across the terrain leading to the concrete outline of a former barracks building. Animal burrows, uneven footing and, later in the season, rattlesnakes pose hazards to those who tread across the grounds. But finally, Tinker stepped up onto the foundation and, like so many other pilgrims, felt the tug of family history.
She now stood in the same space where she spent the first three years of her life. This was not her first trip to Amache, but the visits never fail to be revealing for her — because, she said, we’re all more conditioned to look forward rather than back.
“But then you get sensitized by being out here,” Tinker said, “and you start thinking, ‘Wow, I do have a past.’ So that’s why every year I come, I get another chapter of my life opened.”
The addition of the Sand Creek descendants to the mix further expanded her understanding.
“And that’s another part of our history,” she said. “We were on their land, historically, and so that should form some kind of a bond, don’t you think? That’s why it’s important for me to go on Sunday.”
Vicki Shigekuni Wong, a Los Angeles-based film producer and entrepreneur whose father was incarcerated at Amache, was preparing to attend her first pilgrimage when she noticed in an email that it included a trip to the Sand Creek Massacre site. Unfamiliar with that portion of Colorado’s pre-statehood history, she started researching it online.
Although she’d already booked her travel and wouldn’t be able to make the Sunday side trip, the prospect of continuing an exchange with the Sand Creek descendants struck her as appropriate.
“I absolutely think it’s relevant to blend the two events,” she said. “Of course, one was by far more violent, with deaths. There can be no comparison as far as human life. But the general gist is that liberties can be just taken away at will by a more dominant, powerful party, just for greater political and economic greed.”
A connecting name
The throughline of Amache and Sand Creek extends virtually from the opening of the camp, when authorities sought to distinguish the post office for what initially was known as the Granada Relocation Center from that of the town of Granada. The name Amache referenced Amache Prowers, the daughter of a Cheyenne chief who married prominent cattle rancher John W. Prowers, eventually the namesake of Prowers County.
Amache’s father was among the 230 tribal members murdered at Sand Creek.
While that thin slice of history has long been known to many Amache descendants, there has been only sporadic formal public acknowledgment of common themes connecting the sites. In 2006, when Amache gained the status of National Historic Landmark, the speakers at the ceremony included Derek Okubo, whose father had lived in the camp.
Okubo, executive director for the Denver Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships, also sits on the board of the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation. In his speech at the time, he noted the irony of Amache’s proximity to the site of another government-sanctioned atrocity.
Later, teacher and school administrator John Hopper, whose local, student-run Amache Preservation Society has served with other organizations to not only maintain the former incarceration camp but also tell its story, noted in his remarks how the students’ stewardship had shifted local perception of the internees that, for many, remained mired in negative, World War II-era attitudes.
One of the people listening was Alexa Roberts, then working for the Park Service as the first superintendent of the Sand Creek site and now a board member of the nonprofit Sand Creek Massacre Foundation.
“I was thinking about how maybe there’s kind of a similar trajectory into the future that Sand Creek may have,” she recalled, “bridging communities with people that have been gone from the area for a long time — just creating new levels of understanding.”
In 2010, a joint conference of philanthropic entities from both the Native American and Asian American Pacific Islander communities met in Denver, and afterward attendees visited both the Amache and Sand Creek sites. Roberts remembers the “true connection” between the two groups that centered on the sacred nature of both sites and the healing that comes from connecting with their histories.
When Amache was more recently under consideration for National Historic Site designation, Roberts submitted a letter that drew on those experiences, laying out the connections with Sand Creek and highlighting the opportunity to amplify both stories.
Now that both Amache and Sand Creek have achieved historic designation under the same regional supervision, she’s hoping that the cultural exchange during the pilgrimage might lead to more formal and substantive engagement.
“We just think that there’s the opportunity for our two philanthropic partnership-support organizations, the Amache Alliance and the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation, to connect with each other and see how we can partner up,” she said. “It’s having an opportunity for descendants to continue a conversation, to meet one another and start a conversation, maybe carrying forward what had started in 2010.”
Tracy Coppola, Colorado senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, noted that individuals from both descendant communities have expressed an interest in exploring “a shared identity of displacement, ceremony, and other multigenerational experiences on both park landscapes” and want to inform the National Park Service’s interpretation of their stories.
“NPCA and our partners view this gathering as a promising first step toward honoring and interpreting the lived experiences of the Indigenous and Japanese American communities so critical to these park landscapes,” she said.
Okubo, whose father lived at Amache and was instrumental in keeping the early efforts to restore it alive, figures he probably first became familiar with the Sand Creek Massacre in the 1980s. But he started to realize some of the connections with his history as an Amache descendant as he developed relationships in the Native American community and through his work on the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation’s advisory board.
“One is definitely horrible. And the other one is horrific,” Okubo said last week by phone, as he couldn’t attend the pilgrimage this year. “Both happened to communities that had been targeted by the U.S. government and a lot of it was very much racial.”
Bridge building marks the first step in collaboration, he added, with learning and healing extending both within the two specific populations of descendants as well outside them.
“I mean, healing as a whole nation is something that we have to continue to strive for,” he said.
Conrad Fisher, cultural resource liaison to the Northern Cheyenne tribal president who also serves on the board of the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation, admits he knows little about the Amache experience, but he does see the parallels of government intervention. In a broader sense, he compares the idea of an incarceration camp to the infamous Indian boarding schools that sought to erase native culture.
“Boarding schools were where you were forced to cut your hair, you’re forced to become a non-Indian, forced not to speak their language,” he said. “So in that sense, I’m sure that those are similarities. I’ve never been to a concentration camp. But I bet I could learn a lot by talking to those folks and what they went through.
“This would be a worthwhile thing to pursue so you have a better understanding of what happened to a group of people there at Amache,” Fisher said. “And this is all part of Colorado’s history. That’s the other commonality we have. We have a dark history and that needs to be told.”
“You have to know what this is”
When Eric Leonard was growing up, his family often trekked back and forth between their eastern Washington residence and his parents’ former home in western Kansas. The trips, Leonard recalls, “were often not in a straight line,” and his parents used the frequent side trips to feed an enthusiasm instilled by a couple of transformative history teachers.
He recalls one trip when they swung by Bent’s Old Fort near La Junta, where the authenticity of a dirty, smelly atmosphere made it seem “like the people just sort of stepped away.” On another one of those educational detours, when he was in his teens in about 1990, his dad pulled the car off U.S. 50 and into the Amache site.
“You have to know what this is,” Leonard recalls his father saying.
In about two weeks, Leonard will move into the position of superintendent of the High Plains Group of historic sites in Colorado and New Mexico, a geographical region that includes both Amache and Sand Creek as well as Bent’s Old Fort, and the Capulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico.
His résumé prepared him well for his new job — he’s been tasked with managing and interpreting a variety of park sites with diverse and complex historical narratives. One park where he worked in Fort Smith, Arkansas, revolves around both 19th century U.S. policies on forced Indian relocations and capital punishment; the Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia known as “the deadliest ground of the American Civil War,” where the Confederacy managed a prisoner of war camp in which 13,000 U.S. soldiers died from malnutrition and poor conditions.
For five years, Leonard served as superintendent at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which preserves Cold War-era U.S. Air Force assets, a launch control facility and a silo with an unarmed, unfueled missile once capable of wiping an entire city off the face of the Earth — situated against a bucolic backdrop of the South Dakota badlands replete with prairie grass, melodic meadowlarks and grazing cattle.
“And so you’re standing in a place where there’s sort of conflicting truths,” Leonard said. “There’s a beautiful prairie landscape and then a secretive hell. And there’s some relation there to Sand Creek Massacre and that site as well. Something terrible happened on that beautiful prairie landscape.
“These are stories of often great violence to great controversy that can require some nuance,” he added. “Everyone can find a way to relate to these. It’s just how do you get past the initial: What am I looking at?”
Leonard believes parks work best when they enlist partners, and he sees the fact that both Amache and Sand Creek sites have retained strong descendant communities as a possible starting point for engagement. While he has definite ideas about marketing the regional sites, he pulls back when it comes to the details of how those descendant communities might come together in mutually beneficial ways.
“It’s a part of the story that doesn’t belong to me,” he said. “I’m an Anglo park professional and the manager. I think descendants should have the freedom to build a relationship. I see my role mostly to start to meet people and to just be present and to listen. I have a sense of the things I don’t know.”
Experiencing Sand Creek
While the sun burned off a light haze on the vast panorama at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic site, an assortment of Amache descendants, friends and supporters gathered beneath a canopy of trees around Dale and Bobbie Hamilton.
After Dale invited the dozens of visitors to silently pray in their own tradition, Bobbie held a braided length of dried sweetgrass to a lighter, creating wisps of fragrant smoke. One by one, attendees leaned into the vapor, drawing it toward them with four passes of their hands in a cleansing ceremony ahead of their hike onto sacred land.
Over the next couple of hours, park guides led the visitors along the gravel trail that winds from the on-site visitor center uphill to the high ground where the guides’ skillfully delivered narrative melds imagination with the sprawling landscape to recreate the timeline of the 1864 military slaughter of more than 230 peaceful inhabitants, mostly elders — including several chiefs — women and children.
For the Amache pilgrims, the tour provided the coda to a weekend of revisiting and memorializing the Japanese-American experience at the incarceration camp. But this parting field trip also expanded their knowledge and understanding of the people whose deadly encounter with government forces came generations earlier.
Arlene Acuna reached the top of the gentle rise and surveyed the landmarks described by the guide. She’s been aware of the devastation of the Native Americans since she was a young teen, she said, and hopes a collaborative approach can raise awareness of both groups’ experience.
“I think that Sand Creek descendants, sadly, don’t have the kind of community support that Amache has,” she said, noting the camp’s proximity to the town of Granada and the ongoing support of organizations like the Amache Preservation Society. “It would be wonderful if we could work together, to help cultivate this into more of a destination of education.”
Acuna’s parents met and married at Amache, where they lived for all three years that the camp operated. Arlene was born in Berkeley, shortly after the family returned to California, and grew up to become a teacher, where her specialty was multicultural education amid rapidly integrating schools.
Last year, Acuna visited Amache for the every-other-year archeological field study on the grounds directed by the University of Denver and, as her group got ready to return to Denver to catch their flights, they all agreed they wanted to stop off at the Sand Creek site. They walked the route and read the markers.
This year, knowing that there would be collaboration with descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre at the pilgrimage, she reread the historical account to prepare for the guided tour that would deliver even more details against a backdrop of the undulating plains and distant rows of trees that bore witness to the horrible events.
Like those trees, Acuna’s interest in Native American culture also has deep roots. Growing up in a TV landscape heavily influenced by depictions of the Old West, she absorbed the stereotypes but soon was cautioned against buying into them by her parents, whose own lives had been influenced by fear and racism that had coalesced into the internment camps.
That triggered her efforts to devour unvarnished histories of the government’s treatment of marginalized tribal groups.
“My parents gave me that kind of sensitivity,” she said. “I grew up with all the Westerns on TV, ‘Tales of Wells Fargo,’ ‘The Lone Ranger’ and all that. And my father always corrected me and said, the Native people who were called Indians of the time are not represented in a fair way. This is my father, who was a first-generation Japanese immigrant. But he was very politically astute. I was really fortunate.”
Mitch Homma had been to the Sand Creek site a couple times previously, and has thought a lot about how the Amache community might help spread its story. Because Amache’s recent designation as a National Historic Site remains a work in progress that continues to attract attention (the Sand Creek site was designated in 2000 and dedicated in 2007), he sees an opportunity to help spread the word about two important historical landscapes less than an hour apart.
“It’s about education, not just hey, we walked each other’s site and had ceremonies at each other site,” he said. “It’s more than symbolic. It’s a long-term education avenue that we need to journey down together. This won’t be the only time we come out. We’ll do it again after the next pilgrimage.
“This is Step One.”