With U.S. National Parks grant, Brown graduate students to unearth stories from Japanese American internment camps

A project by two Ph.D. candidates in American studies was awarded $220,000 from the U.S. National Park Service to shed light on the stories of lesser-known Japanese American internment camps from New Mexico to Alaska.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A new $220,000 grant from the U.S. National Park Service will enable two Brown University graduate students to launch a digital project that will shed light on the stories of lesser-known Japanese American internment camps throughout the Western United States.

The grant will allow Nicole Sintetos and Erin Aoyama, both Ph.D. candidates in American studies at Brown, to visit five remote sites where Japanese Americans and first-generation Japanese immigrants were confined during World War II. At each of the sites, the pair will collect personal stories and historical background, take drone and three-dimensional images, and meet with members of the local communities. 

The project will culminate in the creation of an interactive digital portal into the past — one they say will help people of all ages understand the complex history of Japanese American internment, settler colonialism in North America, and the links between historical and current injustices.

“We’re trying to extend the map of where we consider Japanese American incarceration to have happened during World War II,” Sintetos said. “But our work goes beyond World War II history — we also want to look at the relationships between internment, the military-industrial complex and settler colonialism. Many don’t know that some of these sites of incarceration are still in use by the military today, or that some have lots of tangled history with Native American populations. We want to bring all this history out.” 

In 1942, amid the tensions of the war, a controversial executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the U.S. military to remove and incarcerate an estimated 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent. Families living on the West Coast and elsewhere in the U.S. were forced out of their homes and taken to dozens of temporary assembly centers and more permanent internment camps in remote areas across the West and in Arkansas.

Thanks to popular literature and movies, many Americans know about Manzanar (in California) and other large, well-documented camps. Using digital tools, Sintetos and Aoyama hope to tell the lesser-known stories of internment sites such as Baca Camp, now Old Raton Ranch, in New Mexico, and Fort Richardson in Alaska — sites that are more remote or difficult to visit. 

The project, Sintetos explained, is a “melding of our nerd spheres.” Both she and Aoyama have spent time working at former Japanese American internment camps — Sintetos at Tulelake, California, and Aoyama at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Both have experience teaching American history to young students, and both have engaged in public-facing scholarship. In 2018, Sintetos organized a Japanese Incarceration Mobile Workshop that saw a handful of students, including Aoyama, travel to various internment camp sites up and down the West Coast; musician and activist Kishi Bashi joined the group to film part of a forthcoming documentary about Japanese incarceration. And Aoyama was a member of musician-scholar duo No-No Boy, which tells stories about the Asian American experience through folk music and has garnered national attention.

The two dreamed up their National Park Service grant proposal while hiking up Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Aoyama said. 

“Since Nicole’s mobile workshop, we’ve both been engaged in different ways of bringing our scholarship to the public,” Aoyama said. “We asked each other, what is missing from the history curriculum? What tools do teachers need to focus on this topic? How do we bring to life these more remote sites that are very difficult to visit? By the end of the hike, we had our project.”

“ The forms of injustice we’ve seen in the last few years ...those are echoes of the past. If we can learn more about our history, we can confront those injustices and break the cycle. ”

Nicole Sintetos Ph.D. candidate, American studies

Neither Sintetos, who grew up in California, nor Aoyama, a native New Englander whose grandmother was forced into an internment camp at age 20, remember learning much about Japanese American incarceration in their childhood history classes. They surmise that many American children know little about those who were confined in camps because they live far away from the sites, making field trips challenging. Even for those who do live near the former camps, it’s often hard to access the land or learn about its history: Some sites have since become private farmland or are still in use as U.S. Army bases. One site, Fort Sill in Oklahoma, was slated to become a migrant detention center in 2019 until activists, many of them Japanese American and Native American, helped convince legislators to re-examine that plan.

“I remember that when I worked at Heart Mountain, the camp in Wyoming, I found it weird — this place that carries so much historical significance, so much pain, is mostly farmland now,” Aoyama said. “We think it’s important to juxtapose archival photos with images from today, not only to show people what’s still there but also to show what isn’t there. In some places, the barracks are gone. In some places, there’s barely any signage recognizing the history of the camp. That lack of acknowledgement, that lack of presence, says something, too. In some cases it’s just as poignant as a monument or a sign.”

Using geolocated audio storytelling and immersive virtual reality images, Sintetos and Aoyama hope to tell a nuanced yet easy-to-follow story of Japanese American incarceration, military power and settler colonialism to students, teachers and the general public. They’ll bring history to life with personal stories from former internees, perspectives from Native American tribe members, historical background and drone footage. And they’ll draw out themes that connect the past and present, inspiring people to fight against current injustices.

“If we are to work toward a more just future, we have to understand the present — and to understand the present, we have to understand the past,” Sintetos said. “The forms of injustice we’ve seen in the last few years — migrant children being separated from their parents at detention centers, people from mostly Muslim countries being banned from visiting the U.S. — those are echoes of the past. If we can learn more about our history, we can confront those injustices and break the cycle.”