Friendship across barbed wire: Mineta-Simpson exhibit underway at Heart Mountain
August 31, 2023
Former Sen. Alan Simpson hopes project under construction at historic site near Cody encourages across-the-aisle efforts in today's age of polarization.
CODY - In 1942, Alan Simpson was 11 years old, and World War II exerted enormous influence on this small town. Many local boys had gone to serve in the war, Simpson said, and many had not come back.
"Park County, and Cody, probably per capita lost more people in World War II than many other communities," the veteran Wyoming politician said. "There was a lot of feeling."
That feeling included hostility toward Japan. "So as the war would report that so-and-so had died in Iwo Jima or somewhere, there would be things on the wall on the door of the restaurant, saying 'no Japs allowed here. Go home, you sons of bitches, you killed my son.'"
Simpson remembers a flurry of construction on the treeless prairie north of town that summer. Workers erected barracks, a hospital, a watchtower and barbed wire fencing to encircle it all. Japanese Americans, removed from their homes in West Coast states by the U.S government, were transported by train to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. It was one of 10 internment camps the U.S. operated to detain thousands of citizens of Japanese ancestry, citing national security. Some 14,000 people were incarcerated at Heart Mountain between 1942-1945, making it the third-largest city in Wyoming at the time.
In many ways, it operated like a city. Despite existing in a harsh climate and cramped quarters, Heart Mountain prisoners ran a newspaper, grew vegetables, played music, held cultural events and attended classes.
In the early days, Simpson remembers driving by the internment camp and seeing the watchtower and barbed wire.
From the outside, "it was a frightening place," he said. But he had a scoutmaster who discovered Heart Mountain had a Boy Scouts troop. "He said, 'those are boy scouts out there. And they are Americans. And we're going to go out there and have a jamboree.'"
And it was during that jamboree that Simpson met a kid named Norman Mineta from San Jose, California. They were assigned to the same pup tent, and bonded when they pulled a prank on a bully from Simpson's troop. "He and I hit it right off."
Simpson and Mineta went on to forge a storied decades-long friendship. They reunited in the halls of Congress, where Mineta was a Democrat from California and Simpson a Republican from Wyoming, and together forged a model of across-the-aisle cooperation as they worked on controversial legislation like the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The act served as the federal government's formal apology to those imprisoned during the war, paying them financial reparations.
Mineta died in 2022 at age 90. The story of his friendship with Simpson, 91, will live on at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center; the facility is in the process of constructing a new wing called the Mineta-Simpson Institute. Along with spaces meant to encourage hard conversations, it will feature an exhibit of Mineta and Simpson's mementos. The exhibit recently met its funding goal for the project to become reality.
Simpson hopes the mission the institute encourages and the lessons it holds will help return politics to a place of free-flowing dialogue and ensure that something like Japanese American internment "never happens again."
Space for dialogue, more
Despite the gravity of its history, Heart Mountain Interpretive Center occupies nondescript fields beneath the cone of Heart Mountain; it'd be easy to miss. Today, people from around the globe travel to the national historic landmark to learn about the years of internment during World War II. They can see the old hospital complex, view the site of a camp swimming hole and learn about the hardships residents faced as they were uprooted from cities like Seattle and Los Angeles and placed in an alien climate of dusty summers and frigid winters.
The Interpretive Center opened in 2011, thanks to years of effort by the Heart Mountain Foundation, along with former detainees like Mineta and supporters like Simpson, to elevate and share the remarkable story.
The newest project, the Mineta-Simpson Institute, is an expansion of the existing museum. It leans into promotion of the kind of cooperation exemplified by Mineta and Simpson's accomplishments.
"Our aim is for visitors to identify with the love and respect that Simpson and Mineta felt for each other," Executive Director Aura Sunada Newlin said in a news release. "Visitors may not agree with either leader's political positions; indeed, we expect that many will not. The point is for visitors to emerge from the exhibit with a heartfelt sense that disagreement need not devolve into dehumanization."
Mineta and Simpson both served in the military; both pursued politics and both ended up in Congress. Mineta was a 10-term Democratic congressman and a cabinet official under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Simpson was a three-term senator whose allies included Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican George Bush Sr.
Both held dear a value of cooperation for the good of the country, even if that meant working with those they disagreed with. Both men were given Presidential Medals of Honor by presidents of the opposing party: George W. Bush bestowed the medal on Mineta, and Barack Obama on Simpson.
Those medals will be among the mementos, artifacts and notes in the Mineta-Simpson exhibit, which will occupy a hallway that takes visitors from the interpretive center to the institute.
The institute won a $150,000 grant from the National Park Service this summer to help fund the exhibit, clinching its goal of about $230,000. Rebecca McKinley, Heart Mountain's deputy director, said staff are already in talks with the Mineta and Simpson families to discuss some of the high points they want featured.
"Both men lived such enormous lives and were such large personalities, that it will be hard to capture it all in this exhibit," McKinley said.
The Heart Mountain Foundation has raised more than $8 million for the larger Mineta-Simpson Institute project, McKinley said, and is pushing to raise about $300,000 more. That 7,341-square-foot addition will hold a meeting space, a modern digital production and broadcasting studio and a research lab.
As the current interpretive center was designed to evoke the architecture of the residential barracks, the institute will resemble a mess hall. That is deliberate, McKinley said. "The mess hall was a place where incarcerees could meet and ... have community engagement and conversation," she said. "And so because we want this space to be a space of open communication, honest conversation and being able to put in some of the hard work of democracy, we felt that the mess hall was very emblematic of that."
Simpson believes the project has an important lesson in today's age of extreme polarization.
"It can teach: You got to talk to each other. You got to hear each other," he said. "You can't just be a rockbound Republican or a rockbound Democrat, you should put aside that and decide that you're an American citizen for Christ's sake."
Prevent it from happening again
Today, Simpson said, it's easy for people to look at Heart Mountain and wonder how the United States let something like that happen. It was a different time, he said; both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. Supreme Court backed the order that deemed internment a wartime necessity.
He himself was confused as a boy. On one hand, he knew Cody boys who died in the war - and that hurt. On the other, his visits to the internment camp showed him that the residents were Americans, kids with grandmothers and siblings, kids who liked to tie knots and play games like himself.
He remembers having a notion of it being unjust, he said. "I thought, 'what are they here for?"
But it didn't solidify until later. "They are here because of a failed government, a government filled with war hysteria and racism," Simpson said. "And don't think that can't happen again with some of the characters that are running around in the world today."
The Mineta-Simpson Institute aims to ensure it doesn't.
The men's friendship "really informed and shaped their view on politics and their view on courage and empathy and the ability to rise above squabbles and party lines in order to do what was right," McKinley said. Heart Mountain hopes the exhibit primes people for having hard conversations, she said, "and that we can get back to that."
The Mineta-Simpson Institute grand opening is scheduled to coincide with the 2024 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage in July.
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