Admittedly, the documentary category is not one of the high drama moments in the Academy Awards ceremony. As a result few people will remember, in 1991, when director Steven Okasaki won an Oscar for the documentary “Days of Waiting” about a Caucasian woman interned along with 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
Okasaki has been nominated for an Oscar four times, but his most recent production “All We Could Carry” was not among them.
I, however, was honored this past weekend to see this 15-minute masterpiece in Cody, Wyoming. Located just 50 miles east of Yellowstone National Park, Cody was the site of one of ten internment camps for Japanese Americans. It received its name Heart Mountain from the majestic mountain near the camp, but there was nothing romantic about what took place here between August 1942 and November 1945.
The drive east out of Cody to Heart Mountain is through the high desert, and this weekend it was bitterly cold. The wind was blowing so hard that at one point I lost my footing and fell. But I was wearing a nice down coat, snow pants and boots, riding in a cozy warm SUV.
That’s not how the Japanese arrived at Heart Mountain and for three years, nearly 14,000 Japanese Americans endurred here with only the clothes on their backs and “all they could carry.” They came from California and they weren’t wearing down or fleece.
From the outside, the visitors center, which opened last August, is not impressive. In fact, it’s quite ugly and depressing, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. The black, barracks-style buildings reflect the design of the living quarters hastily assembled for those uprooted from their homes, businesses, communities and lives on America’s west coast. At the time, President Roosevelt and most Americans felt this was necessary for national security.
So this museum is their story. It’s a first person narrative of what some have called legalized racism. Even though many of these individuals were first and second generation American citizens, they lost their rights to vote, to own property and all that is guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, 800 men from Heart Mountain were drafted and served in combat in Europe. Two won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
This is not a pretty chapter of American history, and I admit, I was disturbed as I left the visitor center and looked out over the landscape that had been almost as cruel to these individuals as their government.
The story of Heart Mountain may not have received an Academy Award, although it deserves one, and equally it deserves our time and attention. Each year, nearly three million people visit nearby Yellowstone National Park. If you are one of them, make that drive east into Cody Wyoming and spend a few hours at Heart Mountain. It will be time better spent than any you have devoted to Hollywood’s more celebrated stories.