Could it Happen Again? Geological Perspectives on Imprisonment at Utah’s Topaz Internment Camp

By February 20, 2020News

“Could it happen again?” is the haunting question one must confront when studying the detainment and imprisonment of US citizens of Japanese ancestry in the United States during World War II.  According to Dr. Brian Roberts (Department of English) introducing the documentary film And Then They Came for Us (2017), 110,000 citizens and residents of the United States were imprisoned in the 1940s without trial or due process simply for being ethnically Japanese. These people, two thirds of whom were born and raised in America, were legally detained according to the government at the time. Seventy eight years ago this week, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which established the “assembly” camps and filled them. 

One such camp, the Topaz Internment Camp, was located only about an hour and half from Provo just outside of Delta, Utah. Some have pointed out the parallel between these camps and those used by the Nazis, and while Roberts said that in many ways they are not analogous, the American interment camps nevertheless “bore a milder resemblance to the Nazi camps to the degree that these camps were set up by a government which overtly favored white people. And that was unabashedly using racial and ethnic background as a logic for rounding up scapegoats.” 

Many of the prisoners at Topaz, Roberts pointed out, found a deeper connection with the geological formations of the area than they did with their fellow US citizens who sought to profit from their detainment. The stark geology surrounding their new home came to play a major role in many of their lives. The arts and literature journal established by the prisoners printed an article expressing amazement at the fact that Topaz Camp was located on the ancient bed of Lake Bonneville. Many of the prisoners became interested in the shells and fossils that could be found in the soil around the camp. Shells of ten-thousand-year-old snails were used to create jewelry and ornaments; some of the prisoners saved these artworks and even decades later pronounced them to be some of their most precious possessions. Trilobite fossils, half a billion years old from the bed of the even more ancient Cambrian ocean, could also be found in certain places nearby and were used by some prisoners to make personal effects such as ink stones. One prisoner carved the words, “four hundred and eighty million years” into the hollow of his ink stone from which he would ink his brush for artistic calligraphy. 

The artistic creations and geologic interests of these prisoners have been praised as evidence of these people’s resilience. Roberts agreed that they were indeed resilient and should be praised, but warned that such a focus acknowledges the tacit approval by citizens of the United States exercising their racial prejudice by imprisoning their neighbors and fellow citizens. The prisoners, Roberts suggested, found more kinship, courage, and loyalty in the fossilized remnants of ancient aquatic invertebrates than they did in the people who shared their language, nationality, and culture. 

Since the end of the Japanese-American internment in the late 1940s, all three branches of the government have issued formal apologies for these actions and thoroughly condemned such unlawful behavior. While it was pronounced legal at the time, these camps have been recognized for how heinously they trampled the rights of citizens and human beings. 

“Could it happen again?” During Donald Trump’s campaign for president, he advocated for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and defended these remarks by saying, “Look at what FDR did many years ago and he’s one of the most respected presidents.” In his own words, an elected president of the United States has looked to a completely and utterly condemned, illegal practice as a blueprint for acting out his own religious discrimination. The answer to the question of “Could it happen again?” seems to be “Yes, but not if we stop it.” Roberts finished with this plea, “May we today and in the future find the courage to be better patriots than the invertebrate snails that comforted the prisoners at Topaz. To be more loyal to the rule of law than the trilobites that scuttled half-blind at the bottom of the Cambrian Ocean. May we be ethical enough that those who experience the brunt of prejudice today will not find their best companions in the mirthless laugh of geology, but in ethical solidarity with their fellow citizens and their fellow humans.”