When John Hopper decided in 1993 to do an extra-curricular project with his high school students, he had no idea that it would turn into something that would bring enormous significance to thousands of people whose personal and painful history had been—and still continues to be—largely ignored. At the same time, that’s often how it happens with people who become involved in something larger than themselves. What begins as an idea soon becomes a project that, in rare cases, becomes a mission.
And that’s exactly the word to describe what John Hopper and various highly gifted students have accomplished over the last 25 years: a mission to acknowledge what needs to be acknowledged and to create some “small” measure of justice out of an injustice that is almost unimaginable. It’s a sure bet that John Hopper, a thoughtful but blunt and clearly intelligent man, would not describe what he’s done in such lofty terms. It’s an equally sure bet that others would not describe it as anything else.
Every nation has those dark moments in its history when things were done that were wrong. The United States is no exception. As a nation, we’ve made some attempts to educate our children about the mistakes the country has made. That’s good. That’s what principled nations do.
But there is at least one event in this nation’s history that has not been addressed. In fact, it hasn’t even been taught in many schools.
In February of 1942, the president, with the stroke of a pen, signed Executive Order 9066, an order that overrode the Constitution, took away the most basic human rights of 120,000 people of Japanese descent—two thirds of whom were citizens—and ordered them to leave their homes, their jobs, their neighborhoods, their businesses behind. Strictly on the basis of their ethnicity and without due process, the people were rounded up and moved to various “internment camps”.
They weren’t told where they were going or how long they would be gone. They were just told to show up at a certain time and place where families, who were only allowed to bring with them what they could carry, were given identification numbers and loaded into cars, buses, trucks and on to trains. After a brief time being housed at racetracks and fairgrounds, they were then transported by military guard to internment camps where they would be forced to live like prisoners under constant guard in barracks for the next three years and two months surrounded by guard towers with ten foot high fences and 50 caliber machine guns trained on them as they moved around the area.
There were ten internment camps in the United States, all located in the Western interior of the country in the states of California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Arkansas.
RESTORATION ON THEIR OWN TERMS
John Hopper grew up in Las Animas and has taught at Granada High School for years. For much of his early life, he knew something about Amache; although, it wasn’t in any great depth. What he did know certainly didn’t come from studying it in public school. Even when he attended CSU, he learned only slightly more than he already knew. Hopper’s familiarity with Amache, limited as it was, came from the best source possible: a man named Mr. Namura who worked at Bent County Hospital. He was Hopper’s mother’s supervisor. Mr. Namura had spent three years of his life at the Amache Internment Camp.
Hopper begins his story at the beginning. “I had some very bright students when I was teaching in 1993, and I wanted to do something extra-curricular with them,” he says. “Something that would…mean something. Since they knew almost nothing about Amache, that seemed to me to be a good project.”
He remembers the first day he went out to the site. “There was nothing there,” he says. “All the buildings had been sold off and nothing was really left except acres of tall grass. I had to search all around and then finally I found something. It was a board with the name nailed to a tree.”
He then did what, in retrospect, was the exact right thing to do. He and his students interviewed Mr. Namura. “The students knew the facts,” he says. “Facts are easy. But when you learn what families went through, what was lost, what was taken from them…that’s an entirely different thing.”
Initially, the students had been mildly interested, but, once they spoke to Mr. Namura, once they heard and saw through his words said in his way what his experience was like, they were hooked.
One interview led to another and another. And then Mr. Namura gave Hopper and his students a list of names of other people who had survived Amache, as well. The students sent out letters which were answered, immediately. It seems the Amacheans, as they prefer to be called, were just waiting for someone to ask them to tell the stories of those years in their lives.
As Hopper puts it, “They took us under their wing.” Out of nothing, something big and strong and good came into being and memory by memory, story by story, the larger of story of Amache began to be told.
Meanwhile, John Hopper and his students took over stewardship of the land. They watered and mowed the grass. They uncovered and began to maintain the cemetery. Hopper, using information from the interviews, got together with a math teacher who configured the layout so that a model could be built.
In 1998, there was a big reunion where 12 Greyhound buses full of Amacheans came to Lamar. Hopper describes the heat that day as “stifling”, and he invited them to move to the Granada gym that was air conditioned. The school was just a mile or so from where the camp was located.
Soon, Amacheans were making pilgrimages to the site, bringing materials to landscape and restore it to what it had once been. Others began to donate money for supplies and other materials. More and more—through words and stories and the action those words inspired—people could envision what Amache looked like when it was occupied.
For 25 years, John Hopper and other students have been resurrecting the site and stewarding the land. And now, the students are working directly for the Amacheans as they communicate what they would like done and how.
Some ask the question why those who were so unjustly interned in the camp would devote such sustained energy and resources to its restoration. Hopper’s answer reflects equal parts simplicity and pain. “They want it to be a reminder. A place where people can come and see what was done,” he says. “They do that so that it will never be allowed to happen again.”
And what of John Hopper himself? He’s spent almost half his life focused on Amache, working to restore it, maintaining it with his own lawnmower fueled by gas paid out of his own pocket, meeting visitors at all hours, devoting countless hours to planning future restorations, not once drawing any kind of story while telling the story over and over of an injustice that can never, truly, be made right. What are his thoughts? What value does he see Amache bringing to the world?
He doesn’t answer right away, and when he does, his answer is as complex as one would expect of a man who embodies both the realism of acknowledging something that was terrible and the hope—not optimism, but hope—that perhaps, as a nation, we’re learning.
“We have some people who come here who are openly racist,” he says. “The students want to get into a debate with them about what Amache means and how it was wrong from the beginning. But I tell the students to stop because people like that don’t change. You could hit people like that with a fast ball to the head and it wouldn’t change a thing about how they feel because that kind of belief—that racism—is something that’s learned at home from an early age.” He pauses before continuing. “But then, I think about what happened after 9/11. People were scared after Pearl Harbor, and they were scared after 9/11. But George Bush didn’t do what Roosevelt did. He didn’t set up internment camps for Muslims. In fact, he took the exact opposite approach.” Another pause. “I don’t know,” he finally says. “Maybe in 200 years, things will be different—if we’re even around in 200 years. But, if we are, maybe enough will have happened so that places like Amache aren’t even possible. Lately, I wonder. I wonder if that will ever happen. But I still keep on going. It’s my part, and that’s all I can do.”
With that said, it’s time for Mr. John Hopper to go. In 15 minutes, he’s meeting a group of students from DU who will be working at the camp, hoping to learn all they can learn from these remnants of the past.
Photo Credit Amache.org. For captions hover over photos.