‘Emotional journey’: Crete teacher travels to Wyoming to learn about dark corner of American history | Education


Family road trips from Lincoln to the sleepy Wyoming towns of Ten Sleep and Worland were fixtures of Nikki Menard’s summers growing up. Her adoptive parents hailed from the two towns in the Bighorn Basin, a sprawling arid plateau flanked by mountains and cut by rivers.

But despite how familiar she was with the region, it wasn’t until Menard was older that she learned the story of Heart Mountain, one of 10 prison camps in the U.S. where Japanese Americans were relocated during World War II.

Nikki Menard

Nikki Menard

It’s a dark corner of American history that Menard is working to make sure is never forgotten — or repeated.

The Crete High School English and journalism teacher was one of 72 educators from across the U.S. invited to a workshop at the Heart Mountain National Historic Landmark site to learn more about the camp’s history — and to create their own lesson plans on the history of Japanese American incarceration.

“It was an extremely emotional journey,” she said.

Menard was among 270 teachers who applied for the National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to attend one of two workshops.

Teachers received a $1,300 stipend to cover lodging and travel to the Heart Mountain site, which is near Cody, Wyoming, in the Bighorn Basin.

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More than 14,000 Japanese Americans, the large majority of them U.S. citizens, were relocated from the West Coast to the internment camp following Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

At its peak, the site was the third-largest city in Wyoming and featured a hospital, mess hall, schools and other facilities.

Barbed-wire fences and guard towers surrounded hundreds of tar-paper barracks, where families were housed in tiny apartments with no indoor plumbing and poor insulation.

“It was a pretty wretched place to live by any objective standard,” said Ray Locker, who oversees the workshops.

Today, the valley is radically changed, home to lush fields of barley and other crops — the result of irrigation practices the Japanese Americans introduced during their incarceration.

Guard tower

A guard tower at the former Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, where thousands of Japanese Americans were imprisoned during WWII.

Zach Hammack

A museum keeps the memory of the site alive, now, and there is a walking trail and expansive root cellar still in place that were built by the prisoners.

Teachers spent a week on the site learning from trained faculty about the history of Japanese American incarceration, which President Franklin Roosevelt ordered in February 1942 amid growing concerns about national security.

The concerns were unfounded, but about 120,000 Japanese Americans were eventually incarcerated nonetheless.

“When you take somebody to the place where a historical event happened like this, it’s transformative,” Locker said. 

Educators were also able to meet former prisoners who gathered at Heart Mountain for an annual pilgrimage. And dignitaries — including U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and her former vice president father — were on hand.

For Menard, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Heart Mountain contains even more meaning beyond its significance during WWII.

The land once used to imprison Japanese Americans was originally home to the Crow tribe, which was relocated by the U.S. government. The tribe also holds an annual pilgrimage to Heart Mountain — considered sacred by the Crow — which Menard was able to attend last week.

“It was a really spiritual experience,” she said.

Now, Menard plans to take what she learned back to her students in Crete through a unit she developed that deals with place, identity and culture.

“It deserves attention,” she said. “We don’t have to make those mistakes again.”

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