by Daichi Hirata
This past July, I had the great fortune to attend a week-long workshop for educators sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Landmarks of American History and Culture program. NEH specializes in place-based education that lets participants experience parts of American history where they happened. “Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and the Japanese American Incarceration” taught educators about the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II and the related issues of the treatment of Native Americans, the racism behind many government decisions, and the settling of the American West.
Throughout our time in Wyoming, we as educators wrestled with how to bring back some of this difficult history to our classrooms. So often when teaching history, we feel obligated to tell the horrors of historic events or avoid it altogether as something too shameful or embarrassing. We cannot ignore past injustices, but simply knowing about them does not lead us to compassion or action. My hope is that students can empathize with the pain others experienced, but I also want to show that the Japanese American who were incarcerated during WWII were able to use their pain and collective trauma to seek new ways forward. I believe stories of resilience and resistance are more compelling for students when learning about difficult parts of history. These people were met with conditions and actions meant to wound, destroy, and strip away dignity, yet despite the horrors they endured, they ultimately fought to rebuild a sense of wholeness and strove towards healing. I believe we must center and emphasize these stories of resilience, resistance, and hope in our curriculum alongside acknowledging the horrors.
While the Japanese-American incarceration experience is a particular story in our history, the themes are universally human, and therefore personally relatable to everyone. There are moments in our own biographies where we have succumbed to fear and acted out of anger or hatred, wounding others. We also have our personal experiences of being wounded, where we have sought pathways to survival and healing.
I believe it is most important for youth of our age to know that there are always paths towards healing, and that we can draw inspiration from those who have gone before us. I want students to know that we are also not defined by our mistakes, but when we see harm or cause pain, there are also pathways towards repair, both to those who we have hurt and to our own sense of wholeness and goodness when we are hurt. The Japanese American Incarceration history is filled with inspiring stories that can instill a sense of hope for youth growing into their identities, taking hold of their destinies.