Internment Camp
Dust storm at California's Manzanar internment camp for Japanese Americans for during World War II. July 3, 1942. (Photo by Dorothea Lange via Shutterstock)

A museum at a former internment camp in Wyoming invites the school board to visit and learn more about the unjustified, racist policy that wasn’t extended to Americans of German and Italian descent.

A months-long debate about the delay in approving an award-winning book for Muskego High School students is receiving national attention because conservatives on the school board insist the story about the shameful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II requires “balance.”

During the war, approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans—the vast majority of them American citizens—were rounded up, forced from their homes, and sent to remote camps. Nothing similar was done to German Americans or citizens of Italian descent. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan apologized for the racist policy and approved reparations.

Muskego-Norway school board members have pushed back on approving use of the 2002 historical novel, “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, which won multiple awards for its depiction of a family forced to live in a camp in Utah. An NBC News report quotes one parent who said she was told by school board Vice President Terri Boyer, “We can’t just provide one side,” and that there needed to be an “American perspective.”

The parent said she was told by school board President Christopher Buckmaster there needed to be information about the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japanese atrocities in China. The Americans who were interned had no connection to the actions of the imperial government of Japan.

School board treasurer Tracy Blair told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “It was just a hard book to read. She [Otsuka] had too much poetry in it.”  

Conservative school board member Laurie Kontney, who has been openly critical of efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, posted to Facebook in March, “Many of the topics around ‘social justice’ are no longer about social justice, rather, targeted propaganda designed to divide people and teach our children to not love our country.” During her campaign for school board, she said she believed the law school curriculum around critical race theory is being taught at all levels and that “we need to fight against this divisive ideology.”

School board member Brett Hyde also expressed a feeling that there needed to be “balance,” and attacked the notion of teaching history that includes America’s less honorable moments. 

“We shouldn’t focus on it and have all that we’re teaching are the mistakes that have been made in the past, again, by a culture that we have absolutely no right to judge based on our moral standards today,” Hyde told the Journal Sentinel.

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which operates a museum at the site of one of the internment camps, has extended an invitation to Muskego-Norway school board members to meet with descendents of the incarcerated families.

The invitation notes that “multiple US government reports, scholarly books and articles conclude that the reasons for their incarceration were racism, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership.” 

“We are sincere in our hope that the Muskego-Norway School Board members will come to our site, where they can experience the power of place and engage in dialogue about what happened here, how it happened, and why,” says Aura Sunada Newlin, a descendant of Heart Mountain incarcerees and the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation’s Interim Executive Director. “We pride ourselves in creating a safe and enriching space for such conversations to unfold.”