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World War II incarceration site is focus of new Montana university class

The class will explore the “cultural context, internees, camp workers, physical geography, and social geography” of Heart Mountain.
Image: Heart Mountain
Carpenters work to finish a barrack-type building at the Heart Mountain Japanese relocation center in Cody, Wyoming on July 22, 1942.Edward O. Eisenhand / AP file

The Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, located in Wyoming and the setting of the musical “Allegiance,” will soon be host to a group of students from Montana State University Billings, which will offer a new course about the site, scheduled to begin on Jan. 16.

About 14,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated at Heart Mountain during World War II.

The class was created in part due to Professor Susan Gilbertz’s visit to the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, a museum that opened in 2011, with her mother. At the center, Gilbertz’s mom was struck by a photo of young girls at the camp.

“She just kind of stopped dead in her tracks. My mom said, 'oh, those little girls are the same age I would have been at that time,'” Gilbertz, a professor of geography, told the Billings Gazette. “Suddenly she connected her life as an 8-year-old girl with the little girls in this photograph.”

The class is open to both students and non-students, according to the Billings Gazette. It is slated to explore the “cultural context, internees, camp workers, physical geography, and social geography” of Heart Mountain, with plans for a one-day trip to the site.

The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center hosts a regular flow of students, Dakota Russell, its executive director, told NBC News. The site features historic and artistic exhibits and tours in addition to preserved structures.

“Last year, we served 1,874 K-12 students from 35 different schools in Wyoming and Montana,” Russell said in an email to NBC News. “We only get a handful of college groups each year, but they come from all over the US.”

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation also hosts an annual pilgrimage to the site. Pilgrimages, which takes place at multiple former incarceration sites, allow third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans to reflect on their parents' and grandparents' experiences as well as others to learn about a period of U.S. history in which about 120,000 of Japanese descent, many of them U.S. citizens, had their constitutional rights stripped based on their race.

The next Heart Mountain pilgrimage is scheduled for July 2019.

Russell also told the Billings Gazette that interest in Heart Mountain has increased in the current political climate.

“(Internment) was something that nobody spoke about for a long time,” he told the newspaper. “These are questions that we never really resolved, in part because we chose not to deal with this legacy. … I think we’re realizing the folly of that now.”

Gilbertz, the geography professor, also noted the political climate as part of the reason to offer the class.

“This is a really good thing to do right now — to talk about immigrants to the American society, how important they are, their contributions,” Gilbertz said. “It’s right here in our backyard. I can use this real place to really force us to think about immigration, not in the abstract.”

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