Ameche project 2012

Ameche project 2012

‘Digging Amache: The Archaelogy of a Confined Community’ at SunWatch

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: (l-r) Duncan Kelly, Carlene Tinker, Anita Miller, and Stephanie Skiles review artifacts included in ‘Digging Amache,’ at SunWatch Feb. 18

Several weeks ago, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep certain groups out of the United States, as a national security measure, and turned many lives upside down. Eighty years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that allowed the forced relocation of certain groups within the country for national security. Different methods, similar rhetoric.

The Granada Relocation Center in Granada, Colorado, came indirectly out of Roosevelt’s order and eventually housed 7,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-American citizens from 1942-1945. The so-called internment camp is now the site of an ongoing archaeological dig called The University of Denver Amache Research Project (the military changed the center’s name from Granada to Amache after mail kept going to the city instead of the center).

Meet the director of the project, Dr. Bonnie Clark, at “Digging Amache: The Archaeology of a Confined Community” as part of Sunwatch’s The Archaeology of Confinement lecture series. Clark will be speaking and showing photos and artifacts from the dig at the SunWatch Indian Village and Archaeological Park on Saturday, Feb. 18.

Executive Order 9066 was issued by Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, just 10 weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed. As written, the order authorized the Secretary of War and other military commanders to designate military areas within the country as needed and move residents outside of these areas, if necessary. Any displaced residents had to be provided with appropriate accommodations, transportation, food, and medical aid.

This became a 50-mile stretch from the coast inland width-wise and from Washington state to California and into southern Arizona length-wise (the entire West Coast), designated as a military area. But only Japanese nationals and U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry, along with a small percentage of Americans of Italian and German descent were “restricted” and “relocated” from these military areas.

By June of that year, more than 100,000 men, women, and children were moved to assembly centers. From there, they were separated into 10 isolated, fenced, and guarded relocation centers, also known as internment camps, scattered throughout the United States. The centers made for poor living conditions and were kept under military guard—similar to the German ghettos created for Jews and other minorities, although there was no movement to kill the Japanese-Americans.

On Dec. 17, 1944, U.S. Major General Henry Pratt issued a proclamation declaring that Japanese-American “evacuees” from the West Coast could return to their homes. Ironically, during the course of the war, 10 Americans were convicted of spying for Japan, but not one of them was of Japanese descent. Japanese-Americans were issued a presidential apology for the wartime internment in 1976, and surviving internees were recompensed with $20,000 each in 1988, 40 years after the fact.

Thanks to the efforts of the Amache Preservation Society, the internment site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006. That’s when it caught the attention of Clark, an associate professor and curator of archaeology at the University of Denver’s Museum of Anthropology, who specializes in the archaeology of community.

“I was immediately drawn to what an interesting place Amache would be to study, to understand questions like ‘How do people make a home in a space that is not [their home]?’ or ‘What do you do when your identity is under siege?’” she says.

By 2008, the first field school opened for the summer. Since then, there has been a school every other summer, with one that just finished in 2016. It is almost entirely grant-funded through sponsors like the Colorado State History Fund and the university. A collection of fewer than 20 college and high school students, graduate assistants, and volunteers with a personal connection come for a month to research and survey the internment site.

“I carefully screen my students,” Clark says. “This is a very important place, and the work that we do needs to be respectful.”

While the high school students go home at the end of the day, the college students and Clark all live in one house near the site for the duration of the program. They work together and eat together.

“Sometimes conversations are difficult because [Amache is] a difficult situation,” Clark says.

All the volunteers at the field school are either survivors of the camp or descendants of families who were imprisoned at Amache. For one of the volunteers, this was the first time he had been back to Amache since he was born at the center.

Amache housed those 7,000 people in an area about the size of a square mile. Families were housed in rooms, called apartments, furnished with a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a coal-fired heater, a partially completed closet, and steel cots with two blankets. Administrative areas and military personnel living quarters surrounded the residential area.

One of the field school responsibilities is to complete a walking survey of the residential area and record what items have been left and where they are, leaving them in their original location. The only objects removed from the property are ones that can be put together for more complete information, such as pieces of fragmented pottery. After the survey is complete, limited testing and excavations will coincide with graduate thesis work.

What Clark and the researchers have found is that people had “turned this prison into a town.” It wasn’t just a space for individuals; it was a space where families lived. Today, the researchers uncover kids’ toys and special dishes with decorations like the Three Friends of Winter, used for good luck.

“When we think about war, we think about soldiers,” Clark says. “We don’t often think about families.”

The research project also has obtained first-hand documents and stories. Data and artifacts have been compiled into a traveling exhibit called “Connecting the Pieces: Dialogues about the Amache Archaeology Collection,” curated by Anne Amati of the University of Denver’s Musuem of Archaeology. The next step for research teams is to survey and study the administrative blocks and the military residences. Clark says the project has no end date in site.

“We just find it a real honor that we’re welcomed there,” she says.

‘Digging Amache’ takes place at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 18 at SunWatch Indian Village, 2301 W. River Road in Dayton. Admission to the lecture is free. For more information on the event, please call 937.268.8199 or visit or Portfolio.DU.Edu/Amache. Updates are also regularly posted on the Facebook page ‘University of Denver Amache Research Project.’

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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