Uncovering a Garden Plot and a Family Story

By Greg Kitajima

NAJGA member Greg Kitajima helps uncover history in a Japanese internment camp garden plot in Colorado and opens a door to his own family’s story as a Japanese-American. 

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Dr. Bonnie Clark (right) is an archaeologist and NAJGA member who is leading the project to uncover the site history of the Amache internment camp in Colorado.

I had not looked through the schedule of speakers at the 2016 North American Japanese Garden Association (NAJGA) conference in Delray Beach, Florida. this past spring. I almost skipped the conference but decided to finally attend.  I had no idea until five minutes before her presentation that Dr. Bonnie Clark of Denver University  would be giving a presentation on the archaeology field school that she runs at the Amache Internment camp, in Granada Colorado, the camp where both my parents and their families were interned from 1942-1945. Funny how things work out the way that they should.

As is very common among former internees of the detention camps, no one in the family had ever really spoken about their experience about that time. In Japanese culture, there is a belief and practice that you do not complain about bad things that happen to you in life. You accept it and move on.I knew that my family had been interned at Amache, but knew little beyond the name of the camp, so the opportunity to visit the site and work with an archaeology field school studying the gardens that were built there was something that I could not have ever imagined happening.

For one whole week in July, I volunteered with Dr. Clark’s field school. The field school was split into two groups, one excavating garden plots and the other focusing on camp life, searching for artifacts. All of the artifacts that they find are electronically plotted on a map, photographed and documented, then returned to the specific site of discovery.

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Greg at work at the excavation site.

For the first 3 days, I worked helping to excavate what was believed to be a garden plot. Over the last seventy-odd years, the shifting sands of the plains have drastically altered the existing grade. This particular site was identified by two pieces of concrete that protruded from the ground, obviously purposely placed. At this camp, the barracks were built on poured cement foundations, and as there are no native rocks in the surrounding area, except for small sized stones from the Arkansas river about a mile away, the internees broke off pieces of the concrete over pour and used them as stones in their gardens. In my one square meter plot, approximately 10 centimeter below grade, I uncovered a planting hole, which appeared as nothing more than a 20-inch dark shaded circle with a slightly darker 12-inch diameter circle inside of it. Later, through soil analysis and other lab testing, it has been determined that this was where a plant had been transplanted from the Arkansas river. Garden archaeology of this type is all interpretive, so this is just one piece of a puzzle that may take years to piece together, due to the limited time that they have. In the future, they will return to this plot and do more excavation.

Although the archaeology work was fascinating and directly tied to my work in Japanese-style gardens, it was the last two days that I spent with the group that were the most meaningful.During their second to last weekend, the field school holds an open house for former internees and their relatives. There were about 60 people who attended this event, including my mother and her sister who were 8 and 5 years of age, respectively, when they entered the camp.

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Greg with aunt Noemi (left) and mother Martha (right). Noemi and Martha lived in the camp as young children.

This was their first return to Amache since their release in 1945. As part of the program, Dr. Clark took us to the foundation of the barrack where they were housed. The flood of emotions that I experienced standing in the exact spot where my mother’s family was housed was pretty overwhelming. I also had the opportunity to meet and hear stories from other internees, two of which had very vivid memories of camp. One woman spent the larger part of her high school years in camp.

I look forward to 2018, when the next Denver University Archaeological Field School will run, and I am already planning to return for a longer stay this time. Were it not for NAJGA, it is very possible that I might never have made the connection with Dr. Clark and that dark portion of my family history may have remained a mystery.

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Uncovering a Garden Plot and a Family Story