By Mike Childers
At Manzanar, in the presence of the ancient mountains, another tragic episode of history struggles for solution. Because of evacuation enforced by military order all along the coast, homes were abandoned, and trades and enterprises relinquished. Scenes of pleasant childhood draw into unreal distance; the future is only a hope, no longer an assurance. Friends and family are split and scattered with strange divergences of loyalties, beliefs and decisions.
- Ansel Adams, Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans, 1944
I have been thinking a lot about Ansel Adams lately. There are few who have had a greater influence on how we perceive our national parks than the famous photographer. Adams’s images of the Yosemite Valley, Grand Tetons, and Canyon de Chelly remain among the most recognized photographs of the twentieth century, and they continue to shape our expectations that National Parks are places of wild, untrammeled beauty. Adams was known for not including any people in his photographs, portraying a false narrative that the parks were actually untrammeled by man. Adams quibbled with criticisms that he ignored people altogether in his photographs, writing in 1979, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” A romantic vision indeed.
A notable exception to Adams’s depiction of nature sans humankind is his Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. Published in 1944, the 112-page book includes dozens of portraits of American citizens interned at the Manzanar Internment Camp. It is a fascinating book full of portraits, brief glimpses into life within the camp, and yes, a few stunning landscapes. What makes the book notable is its publication in the final year of the war and its attempt to humanize a number of Americans largely invisible, or even hated, by the rest of the nation.
Following Highway 395, through the spectacle of rolling desolate hills, jagged and ancient rocks, chaotic areas of black lava, grey-white alkali lake-beds, blue acres of impounded water, clumps of willow and cottonwood and the slender lines of Lombardy poplars – all interspersing the bronze sage-covered plain and underlying the towering mountains on either hand – we come to the soldier-guarded gates of Manzanar and enter a little city, well-governed ad alive, mirroring in small scale an American metropolis.
Fear swept across the country in the days and weeks following the Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Those living on the West Coast felt particularly vulnerable to another assault from the Pacific, leading to widespread panic and deepening racial hatred. Seeking to calm the nation’s qualms and provide “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 ordering the forced relocation of some 125,000 Japanese-American citizens living in California, Oregon, and Washington to internment camps scattered across the rural West.
Of those interned, nearly two thirds were naturalized American citizens. They were business owners, farmers, fishermen, college students, husbands, wives, and brothers and sisters. And like their fellow citizens, they had meet the news of the attack Hawaii with shock and fear as their nation was suddenly thrust into war. Yet, as fear turned to hysteria, the American public looked for ready scapegoats to blame for the war. Like many recent immigrants, most Japanese-American lived in small self-contained communities in western metropolitan areas. Many living in such “Little Tokyo’s” were naturalized citizens. They have never known any country but the United States. This proved no defense to the boiling hatred that had seized the country, and like generations of migrants before them, western communities of Japanese-American became targets of nativist politics.
The responsibility of the Military was tremendous; the spectacular victories of Japan, the crippling of our fleet at Pearl Harbor, the possibility of invasion of our west coast – all were facts of tragic import, and ta the time were considered more than ample justification of the mass exodus. In addition, there was the threat of public retaliation against the Japanese-American population. We may feel that racial antagonisms fanned the flame of decision that political pressures were of no little consequence in supporting the military action. In the light of retrospection and true evaluation the evacuation may have been unnecessary, but the fact remains that we, as a nation, were in the most potentially precarious moment of our history – stunned, seriously hurt, unorganized for actual war.
Adams spent most of the war fretting about how to best contribute in some meaningful way to the war effort. The government had no real need for a landscape photographer, and Adams refused to be just a sergeant in the army. He had hoped briefly that he would work for his friend Edward Steichen in the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, but the job never materialized. At a loss as to what to do, Adams expressed his frustrations to fellow Sierra Club member Ralph Merritt. Recently appointed as the director of Manzanar, Merritt asked if Adams would be interested in visiting the camp and documenting the amazing resilience of those being held there. Adams agreed, and the two arranged his visit to the internment camp.
Adams was not the first to photograph those interned at Manzanar. Known for her work during the Depression, Dorothea Lange had been hired by the military to make a photographic record of the forced evacuation and relocation of Japanese-Americans to Manzanar. But after viewing her depictions of American citizens being forced to stay in old horse stables before being loaded into buses, with nothing more than a small suitcase of belongings, by soldiers, the government impounded her images. In addition, Japanese immigrant Toyo Miyatake was among those interned at Manzanar. An award winning photographer, Miyatake smuggled in a camera lens into the camp, using it to build a rudimentary camera in which to clandestinely document life within the camp.
Unlike Lange and Miyatake, Adams was less willing to portray the plight of those imprisoned at Manzanar as desperate. Rather, he saw the internee’s story as one of resiliency and optimism. Discussing Manzanar years later, Adams recalled how positive internees were. “They’d rejected the tragedy because they couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. It was a troubling interpretation of the camp. While he certainly called the imprisonment of hundreds of men, women and children based solely on their race abhorrent, Adams’ chief story was resilience in the face of injustice and the continuing opportunity America offered.
How could Adams come away from his time with those families with such a story? My first impression on reading Adams’s account was to agree with each of those accusations. But on reflection, I am not so sure that it is so simple. As Dorothea Lange later commented, Adams’s treatment of the camp was “far for him to go.” While that was not nearly far enough for her, to argue that Adams’s work ignored the injustice of internment is equally untrue. In curating the images for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, Adams had included a quote from the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing due process of law to all citizens in criticism of the government’s violation of the Constitution. The federal government censured the panel, arguing it failed to accurately depict the relocation program.
Yet, reading through Born Free and Equal you cannot help but remark on how the portraits and candid shots tell a starkly different story than that told by those who endured living in communal barracks through blazing hot summers and freezing winters, all while under the armed gaze of the U.S military. Manzanar was not a relocation camp it was a prison camp.
As we go about Manzanar meeting some of the people and observing how they live, work, and play, we are impressed with their solidity of character, the external cheerfulness, and their cleanliness. I have not been aware of any abnormal psychological attitudes, such as one might expect to find in a group, which has suffered such severe alternations of its normal life. There is no outward evidence of the “refugee” spirit, no expressed feeling of an endured temporary existence under barracks-life conditions . . . I do not recall one sullen face in Manzanar. Many, of course, are bitter, but that bitterness is expressed in terms of argument and discussion – not in terms of an unpleasant reaction to life.
I first visited Manzanar National Historic Site in summer of 2004. The National Park Service had just opened its interpretation center in what had been the camp’s high school. The newly constructed displays told the history of the camp, as well as the surrounding Owens Valley. Nothing I did not expect to see in a National Park museum. But towards the back of the gymnasium that served as the main gallery stood a large display condemning all attacks on civil liberties, including the recently passed Patriot Act. Astonished at the brazen, but correct, connection between the Patriot Act and the internment of American citizens sixty years earlier, I walked out the back door into the heat of the day. There, I stood staring at the parched landscape full of scrub oak and sagebrush that had once been home to thousands of prisoners of war. This, I thought, is what a national monument should be: a place of remembrance, conversation, and reflection on our history, our land, and who we as a nation want to be.
I believe Adams came away from Manzanar with similar insights. A clear critic of government’s violation of the internee’s civil liberties at a time when open racial hatred and fear of imminent attack kept most American’s from opposing the interning of thousands of citizens, Adams did speak out. But I also believe that his limitations as a landscape photographer and wilderness advocate were the same in his depiction of life at Manzanar. He was a romantic. Adams did not view the world in the black and white of his photographs. Instead, he often ignored reality as it was in favor of an idealistic version that removed him from the frame. It is a powerful vision, one worth reflecting upon on this Day of Remembrance commemorating those imprisoned because of their ancestry by a fearful nation unwilling to do the hard work of democracy. In a time of building of walls and banning of Muslims, it is essential to remember Manzanar and the cost of casting our fears and bigotries onto others who bear those costs.
With those thoughts, I will let Ansel have the last words.
Who is to rise among us capable of dynamically interpreting democracy to those who profess it but do not truly practice is? We have the chance now—and never has a better change been offered us—to establish the true American structure of life. The treatment of the Japanese-Americans will be a symbol of out treatment of all minorities.
Chances are that if you traveled on the Southern Pacific railroad in December of 1904 you would have spent some time thumbing through the pages of Sunset Magazine. The cover of this particular issue depicting Santa Claus embracing an Anglo cowboy and Hispanic farmer sharing a smoke not only captured the spirit of the season but also the American West at the turn of the 20th century.
The Southern Pacific Railroad created Sunset Magazine in 1898 in order to bolster tourism on it lines throughout the Southwest. Early editions focused on California destinations – the first issue detailing the wonders of Yosemite National Park. But the magazine’s scope quickly expanded to include much of the rest of the region. Artists such as Maynard Dixon and Will James provided dramatic and modern cover illustrations, while writers and poets including Mary Austin, Jack London, and Zane Grey published poems, short fiction, and travelogues. As historian Kevin Starr has noted, Sunset shaped the manner in which many westerners viewed and understood the very psychological center of the region in which they were pursuing their lives.
At once nostalgic while highly modern, Dixon’s work was distinctive. His earliest illustrations, of which the Christmas cover was one, included traditional Western themes done in a stripped down and vivid form – a perfect fit for Sunset’s look. Dixon’s 1905 cover, What an Indian Thinks depicting a lone Native American wrapped in a blanket standing on a mesa embodied a style he would return to later in his career, in paintings such as Earth Knower (1932) and Open Range (1942).
Few travel by rail through the Southwest today, but Sunset Magazine, now a part of the larger Time Warner empire, is still a reflection of the American West’s identity and Dixon’s vision of the region remains as poignant to today as ever. Modern but nostalgic, diverse yet unique, the Southwest is a special place, particularly during the holidays.
From all of us at Blogwest, have a happy holidays and see you all in the new year.
Our colleague Elizabeth Sutton was recently in North Dakota at Standing Rock. She returned to Cedar Falls with a story that we share with you here. Posted today on ANtiDoTeZine.com, her article “Thanksgiving Reflections on Standing Rock” offers insight into the ongoing actions/reactions against Dakota Access, police forces, local communities, Native American tribes, and water protectors. She writes:
“What I observed at and around Standing Rock is symbolic in the sense that so many people—white, Native, young, poor—are disaffected, disenfranchised, alienated, and seek a sense of purpose. They seek empowerment through finding community in caring for each other and in direct action.”
With the national media hesitant to conduct in-depth reporting on this ongoing crisis, Sutton’s piece is a welcome contribution to the conversation.
Dr. Elizabeth Sutton is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Northern Iowa. She is author of Capitalism and Cartography in the Dutch Golden Age (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the forthcoming Art, Animals and Experience: Relationships to Canines and the Natural World (Routledge, 2017).
Are you experimenting with ways to use digital tools in your historical research? Do you teach western history with interactive digital media? Do you work in a museum, archive, or public agency that is curating digital archives or exhibits? If so, please consider sharing your ideas, successes, and challenges in a non-traditional session with WHA members who are keen to find out more about how to get started.
The WHA Technology Committee is seeking additional presenters for its 4th annual “Six-Shooters” session to be held on Sunday, October 23rd from 8:30-10:00 AM at the 2016 conference in St. Paul, MN. The session uses a lightning round format that allows each presenter six minutes and six slides to present their work. See the “Digital Frontiers” blog for reports on the previous presentations: https://whadigitalfrontiers.com/.
Should you either be planning to attend the conference and have some time on Sunday morning to share your work, or are close enough to come to St. Paul for the day and would like to present, please contact session chair Doug Seefeldt for more information (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you are simply curious to find out what others are doing with technology in their teaching, research, or public history projects, please attend the session!
by Maggie Moss Jones
Americans experience their parks in many different ways, something not formally acknowledged until recently when the National Park Service identified relevancy and diversity as two of its primary initiatives for the 21st century. Scholars such as Lauret Savoy, Carolyn Finney, and Nina Roberts have written about the many ways in which the national park experience has been, and continues to be distinctive for people of color, involving patterns of exclusion and inaccessibility. Scholar Nina Roberts notes “what people [of color] do for leisure, historically, was not spending time in the outdoors, because they worked in the outdoors or they were killed in the outdoors.”
Slowly, the NPS has admitted that it needed to do more to bring diverse populations into national parks as visitors and employees. The 1991 National Park Service Vail Agenda sought to guide the parks into the 21st century and addressed the need to develop a diverse workforce, yet it said little about the needs and interests of people of color as visitors. More recently, the National Park Service signaled its deepening commitment to making the parks relevant and accessible to people of all races, ethnicities, ages, and genders. With park visitation in the 21st century reaching levels never seen before, park professionals must help diverse visitors connect to national parks while they continue to protect and preserve the parks’ natural and cultural resources.
In 2016, the National Park Service’s centennial year, the Public Lands History Center outreach program, the American West Program, seeks both to celebrate the NPS and to examine significant issues in the past, present, and future of our parks. On Thursday, September 29th, the American West Program will present a panel discussion on “The Color of Our Parks: Nature, Race, and Diversity in the National Park Service.” The panel speakers will share historical and contemporary perspectives on race and diversity as they affect experiences of nature, resource stewardship, and interpretation in the national parks.
Our goal for this event is to continue a conversation about diversity and the relevancy of our national parks. Event organizer and panelist, Ruth Alexander of Colorado State University’s History Department will examine patterns of erasure, exclusion, and resistance related to race and gender in the NPS in the early 20th century. Camille Dungy of Colorado State University’s Department of English will discuss her experiences as an African American female writing on and in our national parks. Colorado State University’s Gillian Bowser will share her experience as an African American woman working for the NPS in natural resource stewardship and her efforts to develop programs that will expose young people of color to careers in science in the NPS. Panelist Alexandra Hernandez of the NPS Intermountain Region will focus on NPS efforts to highlight grassroots efforts of diverse communities to tell their own stories in new park units, National Historic Landmarks and National Heritage Areas. While Hernandez looks at NPS accomplishments, Nina Roberts of San Francisco State University will ask if the NPS is willing to evolve to meet the challenges of cultural barriers and shifting cultural landscapes. As the Park Service enters its second century and addresses the challenges of opening national parks to diverse populations and making park units relevant to people of many backgrounds our panel speakers will engage the public in a meaningful discussion of park initiatives and challenges.
This public event will be held on Thursday, September 29th, from 7:30 to 9 pm in the CSU Morgan Library Event Hall. If you’re in the Colorado Front Range, we hope to see you at this essential discussion of our national parks.
Maggie Moss Jones is a graduate student at Colorado State University working with the Public Lands History Center to better understand national park experiences. She is an organizer of this event.
By Jason Heppler
I am a heavy consumer of podcasts. They’re perfect forms of entertainment and information, something that I can consume throughout the day during commutes, down time, or tasks that don’t require full focus. And while there are a good number of excellent podcasts focused on history, none come to mind that focus on the American West.
Earlier this year, journalists Julia Ritchey and Amy Westervelt launched the Range Podcast, a bi-weekly show telling “stories about the New American West.” The show focused on stories, issues, and entrepreneurs of the West. They tell stories, as they describe in their pilot episode, about the “outlaw spirit” of the West and opportunities to “reinvent yourself” in the “wide open spaces that define the West.” This year is the first season, an eight episode arc balancing commentary and interviews on a given topic.
Podcasts in general have a tendency to run long—many of my favorite shows run 90 to 120 minutes. Nationally-recognized shows like Radiolab and This American Life often run an hour or more. Not so for Range, whose shows run twenty-to-thirty minutes in length. The easily-digestible format of the episodes make for perfect commute-length listening or a chance to catch the show in those moments of short time.
What is “new” about this West? For western historians the topics might feel familiar: issues about race and progressivism, sport history, cowboy poetry, the sustainable food movement, and medical marijuana made up just a few of the topics this season. This isn’t the stereotypical West dismissively derided as “flyover country,” nor is the focus exclusively on those urban centers often associated with the West, like Denver, San Francisco, or Phoenix. As someone who studies western high-tech boomtowns, their bonus episode “The 21st Century Prospector” on efforts to turn the hillsides of rural Nevada into the 21st century’s Silicon Valley illustrates the appeal of the show to anyone interested in thinking about the pasts and futures of the region. In some ways rural Nevada parallels mid-twentieth century Silicon Valley. The epicenter of Silicon Valley’s urban growth, stretching from Palo Alto to San José, was an unlikely place for high technology to emerge. The future boomtowns of central California were rural farming and ranching communities prior to the flood of Cold War funding that transformed the San Francisco Bay Area into a major center of research and development. In Nevada, the flow of capital is slightly different, fueled instead by an ambitious real estate developer, Lance Gilman, motivated by profit rather than military research. Nevertheless, just as the builders of Silicon Valley envisioned this postindustrial activity as the future for California’s economy, promoters in Nevada see high-tech as a pathway into new avenues of economic development that’s less reliant on gaming and entertainment. And when Telsa decides to build a gigantic factory for manufacturing batteries—and spending $5 billion in construction and creating 6,500 new jobs—it’s little wonder why states hitch their futures on high-tech. (There are downsides to that, but you’ll have to wait for my book to wrap up to learn more about that.)
Perhaps most enthralling, for me at least, is that they take the region’s distinctiveness seriously. The region does carry with it a kind of uniqueness we call “western,” a historical process roughly shared throughout the region just as the Northeast might be said to have a “New England feel” or that we can ascribe to the southern states a “southern hospitality.” But while it’s fair to generally refer to area west of the 100th meridian as “The West,” we shouldn’t lose sight of the idea that the West is, as David Wrobel once put it, many wests. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from short podcast episodes, but the West contains distinctive subregions defined by their environment, identity, and culture. Are there differences, for example, in ski seasons in Nevada, Utah, California, and Colorado? And if so, what does that tell us about the sport and its place in the West? Furthermore, their show is an artifact of their location: since they’re based out of Reno, many of the episodes tend to focus on Nevada and the surrounding region. But the Great Basin is quite different, both in historical experience and present-day, from the Pacific Northwest or areas of the Southwest. It may be outside the bounds of what Ritchey and Westervelt seek to achieve, but I would love to see future episodes touching on their topics across western subregions.
I’d also call on the show to provide more historical context. It’s not the case that many of these themes are suddenly new to the 21st century. Many of these topics have long histories in the West: ethnic diversity and racial strife, urbanization, new industrial activity, battles over land use, the degradation of the environment—the “new” sometimes looks a lot like the “old.” Many of the issues they bring up this season have roots in historical patterns worth touching on, even briefly, to give a better sense of what exactly is “new” about this West.
These slight criticisms aside, I loved the show and look forward to next season. Do yourself a favor and give the show a listen. And if you have an interesting story to pitch, send it their way.