It was 1942; Japan had just bombed Pearl Harbor, and the American people were worried about Japanese spies on American soil. Amid the tension of WWII following the bombing, the U.S. government believed that the best course of action to prevent Japan from spying on the U.S. through Japanese U.S. citizens was to place all Japanese people in internment camps. The American government created 10 internment camps and forced all stateside Japanese people to live in them, regardless of citizenship status.
One of the most well-known Japanese internment camps was Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Northern Wyoming. Located between Cody and Powell and named after nearby Heart Mountain, this internment camp was opened on August 12, 1942. One of the many residents of this camp was Estelle Ishigo. Estelle was a Caucasian woman who married Arthur Shigeharu Ishigo, a San Francisco-born man of Japanese heritage. Since Caucasians were not allowed to marry those of other ethnicities at that time in California, Estelle and Arthur were married in Tijuana. Although Estelle was not required to move to an internment camp with her husband, she decided to follow Arthur to Heart Mountain in 1942.
Estelle documented her time at Heart Mountain through drawings and sketches which showcase all aspects of life at Heart Mountain. Through her drawings, we can see the struggles and joys of the people living there and how they kept their culture alive even when most people were trying to squash their beliefs and history. The community that these people built out of terrible circumstances is evident in many of her drawings. Most of the drawings are snapshots of everyday life in the camp while others show how parts of their culture lived on while interned at Heart Mountain.
One of the biggest struggles shown in Estelle’s drawings is the harsh climate. Several of her sketches show inclement weather common to Wyoming and how the people struggled to adapt to it. Many of the internees were from warmer climates like California and Arizona, so the harsh Wyoming winter was a shock that many were unprepared for. Her drawings not only show life while at Heart Mountain, but parts of her life after she and her husband were released in 1945. Following Estelle and Arthur’s internment at Heart Mountain, they moved to Pomona, California, a city near their former home of Los Angeles.
It can be difficult for modern Americans to understand what this group of people went through. Looking at these drawings provides a kind of window, allowing us to see Estelle’s perspective. The emotion present in even the simplest of sketches allows us to see what they were feeling. The lack of freedom, personal rights, and privacy shown in the drawings can be almost shocking to see. It must have been difficult for these people to completely uproot their lives, sell their belongings, and leave their homes behind. People tried to take away not only their rights to their culture and to be free, but their rights to be American citizens.
Now, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and Interpretive Center exist to preserve the history of Heart Mountain and tell the stories of the people who were forced to live in this camp. History is there for us to learn from, and the Foundation exists to do just that. If you want to learn more, you can visit their website or check out some of the other AHC collections that showcase life at Heart Mountain Internment Camp.
Post contributed by AHC Archives Aide Sarah Kesterson, Reference Department.