Archeology Is Revealing History At Manzanar, Kooskia

Laura Ng has worked on archeology projects at Manzanar National Historic Site, and at the site of the Kooskia internment camp in Idaho. In this piece, she provides some insight into the role that archeology has played, and will continue to play, in the evolving interpretation of the history of the Japanese American confinement sites during World War II, as well as the pre-war and post-war histories of those sites.

BOSTON — Few people know that archaeological research on Japanese American incarceration sites spans over two decades. The most intensively researched site has been Manzanar, but multi-year field work has also taken place at the Granada concentration camp (Amache) in Colorado, and the Honouliuli prisoner of war and internment camp in Hawaii.

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to participate in archaeological digs at two incarceration sites: Kooskia Internment Camp in north central Idaho, and Manzanar in eastern California.

Because of my research interest and past experience in Japanese American incarceration archaeology, I was hired as the assistant field director for the Kooskia Internment Camp Archaeological Project, and was also hired to work at Manzanar National Historic Site as an archaeologist. Below is a short summary of the 2013 season of archaeological work and historic preservation efforts at Kooskia and Manzanar.


Kooskia is the only Japanese American confinement site that served as both an internment camp and labor camp. Between 1943 and 1945, 265 Issei men volunteered to move to Kooskia from various internment camps such as Fort Missoula in Montana and Fort Meade in Maryland, in order to work as paid laborers in the construction of the Lewis and Clark Highway, which has been renamed Highway 12 (for an excellent history of this camp, read Dr. Priscilla Wegars’ book, Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp.)

Excavations at the Kooskia Internment Camp Archaeological Project field school were led by Dr. Stacey Camp, who is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Idaho. From June 26 to July 24, the field crew systematically recovered surface artifacts from the camp’s dump during archaeological survey and attempted to locate the canteen building by opening and digging excavation units. This archaeological research will help us gain a better understanding of the daily lives of the Issei men who lived and labored at Kooskia, as well as help the Clearwater National Forest create interpretive signs for the site.

To learn more about what has been uncovered at Kooskia so far and for photos from this field season, check out the project’s official blog:


While there have only been two field seasons at Kooskia, this year marks twenty years of archaeological research at Manzanar. Virtually every Manzanar field project has been led by National Park Service archaeologist Jeff Burton, and this year’s dig was no different.

From May 23 – 30, I helped uncover the area between Barracks 8 and 9 in Block 17, which contained an ornamental garden pond. My main job was to make sure all the recovered artifacts were cataloged, packaged, and safely stored, as well as help direct the work of over fifty volunteers. The ornamental pond was designed by incarceree Ryozo Kado, and is situated right next to his barracks building.

Kado is known for creating beautiful faux wood pieces from cement; his work can be seen at the sentry posts at Manzanar’s entrance, the cemetery monument, and the Block 9 garden pond. An oral history interview with Raymond Chomori, a teenager when he helped Kado build the Block 17 garden pond, alerted archaeologist Jeff Burton to its existence and prompted this year’s excavation.

There were no known photographs of the pond at the start of the dig, which made the prospect of uncovering the pond even more exciting. When the excavation was complete, a cement-lined pond was revealed—complete with a waterfall and cement “logs” done in Kado’s signature faux wood style.

A month after the dig, two students from Japan came to the Owens Valley to work as cultural resource interns for Manzanar NHS. In July, Emi Watanabe and Tokiko Fujisawa worked with exhibit specialist John Kepford to clean and maintain several of the gardens at the site, including the Arai garden pond in Block 33, which was uncovered in 2011. In August, I joined the cultural resource staff as a seasonal archaeologist. Under my supervision, Emi and Tokiko worked on cleaning and processing artifacts from the Block 17 dig and assisted John with the restoration and stabilization of an ornamental garden pond next to the Block 12 mess hall.

Arborist Gerry Enes started the Block 12 project by cutting down several of the non-historic trees impacting the garden pond but soon after, the entire area was hit by a flood. The pond was filled with mud and the entire area around it was covered with a thick layer of silt. Cleaning up the flood damage hampered our restoration efforts because much of our initial work involved weeks of shoveling mud out of the pond and clearing the garden of the hardened silt.

After some of this work was done, we were able to carry out our original duties uncovering rock alignments, recording artifacts, and rebuilding historically accurate dirt mounds, among other tasks. Fortunately, Aubrey Steingraber and Dave Goto joined the cultural resource staff as seasonal employees soon after the restoration/stabilization work began, and we were able to clear all of the silt from the flood, rebuild the garden’s rock retaining wall, uncover buried sidewalks, and clear several inches of dirt from the laundry room and ironing room foundation slabs.

Both the Block 12 and Block 17 garden ponds are open to the public to view at Manzanar NHS.

As illustrated above, archaeology at confinement sites plays a crucial role in helping to tell the story of the Japanese American wartime experience. Additionally, descendents of incarcerees often volunteer on digs and are able to connect with an incarceration site in important, unique, and meaningful ways. For me, I am grateful that I get to be a part of uncovering history that both sheds light on the past and holds relevance to contemporary issues.

Laura Ng is an M.A. student in the Historical Archaeology Graduate Program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB). The 27-year-old native of Los Angeles, California has participated in field work at Amache, Manzanar, and Kooskia. At UMB, she worked as a teaching assistant for an Asian American Studies Program class on the Japanese American incarceration and provided research assistance on an oral history project for the Institute for Asian American Studies entitled, From Confinement to College: Video Oral Histories of Japanese American Students in World War II.

Ng writes from Boston, Massachusetts.

The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

LEAD PHOTO: Laura Ng (center) and visitors screening for artifacts at
the Kooskia internment camp. Photo: Stacey Camp. Courtesy University of Idaho.

Photos From Recent Archeological Work At Kooskia and Manzanar National Historic Site

Click on any photo to view a larger image, and to scroll/click through the gallery

Creative Commons License The Manzanar Committee’s Official web site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official web site – Licensing and Copyright Information.

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