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Contact & Location
From Trash to Treasure: Uncovering Idaho’s WWII Internment CampBy Louisa Lohrmann
When students dig into anthropology with Stacey Camp, they never know what clues about the past they might uncover.
Camp, a professor of anthropology and sociology, recruited a group of curious students during summer 2010 and traveled two hours north to Kooskia, Idaho. Once a male-only, World War II Japanese internment camp, the area yielded important evidence of what life was like for the residents.
When Camp’s anthropological adventure began, the students had no idea what to expect or what they would find. After more than a week of searching, they began to uncover the foundation of an internment camp building.
Another encouraging find: an untouched garbage dump. These “cast offs” gave students clues to what life was like for internees, with thousands of artifacts to bag and map. Among these artifacts were Japanese gaming pieces made from local stone, and chocolate wrappers reminiscent of a period candy brand that targeted men in its marketing.
The Kooskia site housed an experimental workforce of Japanese-Amercans. Better pay led many to leave their families at other camps and take up dangerous work in Idaho. The camp also housed government-deported Japanese men from Peru, Mexico and Panama, who were sent to Idaho to be later exchanged for American prisoners of war.
The students discovered that the internees had attempted to transform their surroundings to fit Japanese culture. Artwork, a factor that is absent from other internment camps, and stone plant holders were found through the students’ surface-searching, digging and shovel tests.
“The Kooskia site is a great training ground for students,” says Camp. “It’s important to experience anthropology in the field, as well as in the classroom.”
Camp, proud of the hard work and determination shown by her students, says she wants to make the Kooskia internment camp a 10-15 year project.
“Thanks to generous grants and support from the university, school-year labs evaluate the findings students collect over the summer,” says Camp. “On a project blog, students post updates documenting research on the artifacts. The next step is to add an ethnographic component to the research where students will interview descendents of the internees.”
She also hopes that student outreach can create tourism for the historic area.
“Historical anthropologists study the past to learn how to prevent mistakes from being repeated,” says Camp. “There is a lot we can learn from the early 20th century. Political and economic issues that began then are still affecting modern society.”
Camp knew she wanted to examine the effects the past has on the present. Her passion for researching historic inequality started with her dissertation on Mexican immigrant railroad workers and continued with other projects, such as an archaeological field school in Ireland, where she studied the potato famine and its victims’ heritage.
Camp knew she wanted to stay in the American West to continue her immigration studies; so when an opportunity at the University of Idaho arose, she took the leap.
Camp says she is open to students interested in volunteering to help with labs or joining the group on the next trip to Kooskia.
“I am so happy when I see freshmen and sophomores in my office,” says Camp. “It’s important to start looking for researching opportunities early on. I’m always trying to get students on projects.”
Camp passes on her lifelong interest in anthropology to students through great opportunities like the Kooskia internment camp site. They know that working in the field means more than digging up history; it’s a chance to discover how to learn from the past.