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By Tamara Jager Stewart

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the removal of residents of Japanese ancestry living along the west coast—more than 120,000 individuals—into 10 incarceration camps across the country. One such facility is the Granada Relocation Center, also known as the Amache National Historic Site, located on a terrace above the Arkansas River about 2 miles outside of the small farming community of Granada, close to the border of Kansas in southeastern Colorado. Formerly a privately-owned ranch and farmlands, it was at this 10,500-acre site that more than 10,000 Japanese American residents of California were involuntarily held between 1942 and 1945 in military-style concrete barracks that opened onto the barren, sand-blown High Plains. Amache was the smallest of the internment camps administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) during WWII.

An Amache descendant and site volunteer sketches excavations of the 12F Mess Hall garden pond.
Photo credit: Arlene Makita-Acuña

Two-thirds of the people incarcerated at Amache were U.S. citizens, primarily from California, including Sonoma County, the San Joaquin Valley, and southwestern Los Angeles. Given less than a week’s notice and only allowed to bring what they could carry, those of Japanese descent were forced to leave homes, farms, friends, jobs, pets, and most of their belongings. “We didn’t know where we were going, how long we’d be there, or even why we were being imprisoned,” recalled former Amache internee Robert Fuchigami, incarcerated at 11 years of age. “It was a very confusing time for us, very demoralizing. We were patriotic American citizens that had done nothing wrong.” Arriving at the desolate camp, interned people discovered their new quarters surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by military police. 

“My mother repeatedly talked about the horrible sandstorms and how everything in their barrack would be covered with up to one inch or more of sand that they had to clean out,” recounted Arlene Makita-Acuna, whose parents, grandfather, aunt, and uncles were incarcerated at Amache. “She spoke of the bitter cold winters during which their only heating was from a pot belly stove in their room and the lack of privacy because the walls between the rooms occupied by different families were ‘paper thin.’” 

Photo of rosebush with one pink rosebud.

An Amache rose propagated from the site bloomed for the first time in 2022. Photo credit: DU Amache Project

The prisoners were industrious. They helped organize, develop, and operate the mess hall, the Granada Pioneer camp newspaper, recreation and educational programs, art classes, churches, and a huge farm to raise vegetables. Many had worked in the farming industry and they developed the most productive agricultural program of all the incarceration sites, even supplying several other camps and the armed services with produce. The Amache co-op and silk screen shop were two more highly successful enterprises developed by the people held there. The proximity of Amache to the town of Granada resulted in regular interactions between residents and some of the local businesses. Those with medical backgrounds worked in the Amache hospital and clinics. Some served as teacher aides in camp classrooms and offered informal adult education, teaching art techniques, cooking, and sewing. Many enlisted in the military or worked outside of the camp on nearby farms and ranches. 

One Colorado archaeologist views the gardens created during internment at Amache as an avenue to understand how people created meaning and identity in a place of confinement. University of Denver Professor and Curator of Archaeology Bonnie Clark has been conducting long-term, community-based research at the former prison camp since 2008. She also hosts a unique biennial field school—now in its eighth year—that works closely in the field with formerly incarcerated people, their descendants, local residents, and students. The project’s long-term collaborative approach is unique within research on the 10 WRA sites. Undergraduate college students from across the country make up the bulk of the participants, as well as paid interns from the local Granada High School. The school includes training in archaeological field techniques, museum studies, and collaborative research. 

This is an excerpt of the The Gardens of Amache in American Archaeology, Summer 2024 | Vol. 28 No. 2. Subscribe to read the full text.