Yellowstone has one of the most unique landscapes in the United States, and—rightfully so—attracts millions of visitors every year. Travelers to the area should also be privy to some of the other interesting attractions that northwest Wyoming has to offer, such as the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. The museum is located just over an hour from the National Park’s east entrance. Heart Mountain marks the setting of one of the many confinement sites in the United States that popped up immediately following the attacks on Pearl Harbor during WWII. Peer into the history and lives of Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during Heart Mountain’s 3-year life.
Heart Mountain Interpretive Center is situated only 15 minutes from Cody, Wyoming—a town reminiscent of the old west experience. When you pull into the museum, you can’t miss the striking, craggy mountain in the distance known as Heart Mountain. The museum and interpretive center sit in the shadow of that mountain.
Wandering through the museum and around the grounds of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center is a sobering experience. Stories of the Japanese Americans who were detained there are full of heartbreak and triumph. These narratives—depicted through photographs, relics and museum exhibits—will leave visitors with lasting empathy and a better understanding of American history.
Much of the complex and barracks were stripped years ago, turning the land over to homesteaders for farming. Some of the original buildings are still onsite though, including the old camp hospital, root cellar, and a barrack. The museum and site, overseen by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, includes these buildings along with a war memorial and replica guard tower on the grounds to offer visitors a first-hand glimpse into life at Heart Mountain.
Coming in early February, 2019, Heart Mountain will host a special art exhibit, Joe Nakanishi: Perspective. Nakanishi is a talented watercolor artist who was incarcerated at Heart Mountain when he was 19 years old. During his time trapped behind barbed wire, he killed time by sketching scenes of life around him. The camp’s information officer, Vaughn “Bonnie” Mechau, encouraged Nakanishi’s talent and promised to purchase his art supplies if he kept drawing. After his release from Heart Mountain, Nakanishi enjoyed a long and celebrated career as an artist and designer. Decades later, he would return to Heart Mountain, through his drawings and his memory, and create the series of paintings that make up this exhibit.
The 8th annual Heart Mountain Pilgrimage will take place at the end of July, 2019. During that time, former incarcerees and guests will mingle and reflect on the legacy of Heart Mountain. The pilgrimage is an opportunity to raise awareness about historical events, while also offering first-hand accounts of daily life in the camp. The 2-day event features interactive activities, discussions, speakers, and other entertainment. Register in advance for the chance to attend this unique event focused around American history.
There’s always room to learn
History cannot be altered, but we as a global community can strive to learn from the past. The museum is dedicated to passing on the Heart Mountain story to future generations, and addressing broader issues of race and social justice. Moreover, visiting the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center during a road trip through Wyoming is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about this complicated bit of American history.
This article was created in partnership with Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, Wyoming.
Photos by Kevin J. Miyazaki, courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.