Manzanar National Historic Site

The management of historic sites often raises questions and opposing views from several constituencies. Ann Hitchcock of the National Park Service provided a striking example in the summer 2007 issue of The Federalist of the essential negotiations—the “Civic Engagement” process—that enabled the preservation of the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Owens Valley, California

She wrote that in 1992 “Congress established Manzanar National Historic Site to provide for the protection and interpretation of resources associated with the Japanese American relocation experience. The legislation also established an Advisory Commission composed of former internees, local residents, representatives of Native American groups, and the general public. Although the mission focused on the relocation camp, the composition of the Advisory Commission would give voice to diverse views.”

The camp had been home during World War II to “more than 10,000 men, women, and children who lived in 576 primitive barracks and shared common buildings, such as a laundry, classrooms, and an auditorium.” However, the land was leased, and after the war the Army removed almost all structures from the property.

There were stark differences in approaches to development of the historic site. The NPS traditionally disproved of “reconstructions” of buildings and other structures “as contemporary interpretations of the past rather than authentic survivals, and favored reconstruction only when no other alternative would accomplish the park’s interpretive mission and when it would not be based on conjecture.” Other groups on the commission favored such reconstructions, including the rock gardens, barracks, and especially the guard towers.

Opposing views were evident at the 1993 planning sessions in “the NPS’s opposition to reconstruction versus the Manzanar Committee’s belief that reconstruction was essential; the legislation’s focus on the history of the relocation camp versus the local communities’ desires to see the pioneer and Paiute history given equivalent attention”

In the end, the adopted plan reflected not only the Manzanar experience but the centuries of Native American presence, and the ranching and agricultural character of the area. The structure of the site reflected the internment experience, with reconstruction of the barbed wire fence, camp site entrance, guard tower, and barracks buildings.

Hitchcock noted the value of the general compromise: “The Civic Engagement process “transformed the NPS position and enabled all parties to accommodate the needs of others to put this difficult lesson of history in the context of the extended history of Manzanar.”

For the full article, see the Summer 2007 issue of The Federalist at www.shfg.org, under “Publications.”

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