Media Resource

Why Here?: Heart Mountain, Wyoming and Japanese Incarceration

Constructed to imprison Japanese Americans who were considered threats to the security of the United States during WWII, the Heart Mountain incarceration camp held over ten thousand men, women, and children between 1942 and 1945. The camp was built on land inhabited by the Lakota, Crow, and Cheyenne, American Indians whose history in the area dates back centuries and who continue to live there today. The 740-acre space on which incarcerees lived was surrounded by barbed wire and nine guard towers. The camp consisted of 650 buildings and other structures, including close to 450 barracks. There was also a 1,100-acre farm that incarcerees worked to grow food.

This resource considers the significance of place to the removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, along with issues of civil rights, citizenship, and resistance. Videos, podcasts, primary sources, and a DBQ activity offer multiple perspectives about this era and place, and provide students with prompts to support further inquiry into the lasting significance of this time in U.S. history.

The Land and the People

In this video, scholars discuss how the physical landscape surrounding Heart Mountain changed over time as different groups settled, were displaced, and forcibly transported to the area. Learn about the Crow nation, Buffalo Bill Cody, Japanese American incarceration, irrigation, and conflicts over this vast area of the country.

Guiding Questions:

  • What is Heart Mountain’s historical significance?
  • Whose histories are connected to Heart Mountain?
  • How did the U.S. government shape different peoples’ experiences at Heart Mountain?
Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

The second video in this series focuses on the relationship between Japanese incarceration during WWII and the violation of individual civil rights and civil liberties. Scholars also address how issues faced by African Americans and Japanese Americans in Arkansas after WWII intersect during the civil rights movement.

Guiding Questions:

  • How does Japanese incarceration connect to civil rights and liberties?
  • How did incarceration strip away civil liberties and rights? 
  • What did resistance look like at Heart Mountain?
  • Why is it important to remember what happened at Heart Mountain? 
A Layered History and Legacy

The history of Heart Mountain is long and layered. This third video addresses Indigenous groups including the Crow and Lakota who have lived in the area for centuries. Scholars also discuss white settlers known as homesteaders who moved in during the 19th and 20th centuries. During the 1940s, the U.S. government forced Japanese Americans into prison camps during WWII. And now the region is home to all of them while serving as the backdrop to all these histories.

Guiding Questions:

  • Why study Heart Mountain now? 
  • What does Heart Mountain mean to the people who were incarcerated?
  • How might Heart Mountain’s history change our view of the present?
Teaching Heart Mountain

Educators with the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation discuss how educators can incorporate the multi-perspective history of the area into their classrooms. In this fourth video, you'll hear how a place-based approach to teaching about Japanese American incarceration and civil rights can bring a new dynamic to how students understand the significance of place.

Guiding Questions:

  • Why does terminology matter when teaching this history?
  • How can educators teach this multilayered history? 
  • How might learning about Heart Mountain alter our view of civil rights history?
  • Why is it important to teach this history today? 


Teaching Memory and Place

The last video of this series investigates the relationship between memory and place when studying history. How do place and memory intersect in the history of Japanese incarceration? How do descendants of those who were incarcerated and generations of the Crow people remember and preserve their history? Go beyond Heart Mountain to learn about the incarceration camps in Rower and Jerome, Arkansas, along with strategies for teaching with and about memory.

Guiding Questions:

  • How do place and memory intersect in the history of Japanese incarceration?
  • How can we teach the relationship between land and memory?
  • Why does teaching and remembering this history matter? 


Classroom Resources on Heart Mountain

Why was a remote area in the state of Wyoming chosen as a site to incarcerate Japanese Americans during WWII? That is, why here? To answer this question, it is important to consider the long history of how Asian Americans have traversed and contributed to the development and settlement of frontier areas across the United States. Our Closer Reading "Citizenship, Race, and Place: Frontiers in Asian American History" provides a brief study of Chinese Americans who worked to build the Transcontinental Railroad during the 19th century before addressing the multiple places that incarcerated Japanese Americans from 1942-1945. 

After Executive Order 9066 was issued in February 1942, Heart Mountain, Wyoming, became one of ten camps (others were in California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas) that collectively held over 120,000 Japanese Americans between 1942-1945. What did it look like? How was the land used? Who was already living there? The following resources provide an array of insights and stories to help understand the significance of place to how we think about citizenship and the rights of people before, during, and after WWII.

Why Call it Heart Mountain?: How did this place get its name? Who lived here and what was it called before the arrival of white settlers? This twenty-two minute video gives many answers to the question "why here?" when studying Heart Mountain. 

Look Toward the Mountain: This NEH-funded podcast series produced by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation combines archival materials, interviews, and compelling conversations to tell the stories of the people and place. The episode "What is this place?" explores the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming through the lives of American Indians and white settlers who lived there before Japanese Americans were relocated in 1942.

Heart Mountain AR: Use augmented reality to explore the barracks, guard towers, root cellar, mess hall, and other significant sites throughout the Heart Mountain camp area. This resource requires use of a mobile device to download images. The video below provides an overview of what the augmented reality (AR) tour includes. 

The Legacy of Heart Mountain: What was life like at Heart Mountain during WWII? How did families survive and people resist the cruel treatment of being incarcerated? This short video (8:03) provides first hand accounts and images of what it was like to live in a camp constructed by the U.S. government. 

Beyond Heart Mountain: Produced by PBS Wyoming, this one-hour video tells the story of the prejudices and discrimination Japanese Americans and others who lived outside of the camp endured in Cheyenne, WY. 

Maps and Images of Incarceration Camps: The National Japanese American Historical Society offers a collection of digital maps, images, artifacts, and oral histories from across the ten incarceration camps constructed to hold Japanese Americans during WWII. 

DBQ: Japanese American Incarceration

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, many Americans and indeed the federal government characterized the Japanese and Japanese American populations as dangerous enemies. In response to this infamous day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. This reactionary law authorized the evacuation of people with Japanese ancestry from the west coast to military zones in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Imposing watch towers, rows of barracks, and barbed wire fences that separated Americans from seemingly desolate landscapes beyond characterized Japanese American incarceration camps where more than 127,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned until 1945.  

There are 9 documents included in the DBQ about Japanese American incarceration during WWII and the geographic significance of building a camp at Heart Mountain. After you complete the scaffolding questions for each document, answer the following prompts using at least three documents to support your short-essay response: 

  1. Describe actions taken by the U.S. government against Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1945. 

  1. Describe actions taken by Japanese Americans while they were incarcerated between 1942 and 1945.  

  1. Evaluate the significance of the actions taken by the U.S. government and Japanese Americans in relation to rights and citizenship in the United States. 

The DBQ documents can also be used to organize a Socratic seminar discussion about issues of place, citizenship, belonging, war powers, and civil rights in the United States using the essential question: To what extent are individual rights and national security protected during times of war?