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Sitting at the foot of Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming, a few haunting remnants of the “camp” still stand—a hospital boiler house with its towering red chimney, two hospital buildings, an administrative building, the concrete vault from the high school, a root cellar, and a large excavation that once served as a swimming hole. These and other reminders underscore the importance of preserving sites that are key to understanding U.S. history even when that history isn’t flattering or idyllic.

THE POWER OF WORDS

Incarcerees, internees, evacuees or inmates? Relocation or incarceration? Evacuation or forced removal? The question of what words to use to describe Heart Mountain can be complicated and emotional.

After Pearl Harbor, newspapers and government officials used slurs like “Jap” to paint Japanese Americans as disloyal and dangerous. Later they used doublespeak like “evacuation” and “relocation” to disguise the true nature of what was happening. These words suggested that the forced removal of American citizens was for their safety and protection—rather than the exile and imprisonment that it really was. 

People commonly called Heart Mountain a “concentration camp” when it was open. That made sense, because a concentration camp is a place where members of a racial, ethnic, or political group are confined without charges or trials. Today calling Heart Mountain a concentration camp jars people, because the term has come to refer to the Nazi death camps.

Heart Mountain was not a death camp, but it was also not an “internment camp.” Internment is a lawful process for detaining enemy aliens. The Japanese Americans were not detained under the law, and the majority of us were U.S. citizens.

In truth, the English language may have no exact term for this place where we were unjustly imprisoned because of our ancestry.

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