Skip to content

Episode 1: What Lessons Can We Learn About Human Rights in Wyoming?

Kids Ask Why
Kids Ask Why
Episode 1: What Lessons Can We Learn About Human Rights in Wyoming?

Kelly School

This season’s podcast follows Mrs. Lowenfel’s 4th and 5th Grade Class at Kelly School in Teton County Wyoming. The kids had many questions for our experts and lots to share about the American West. This episode features Caleb, Kai, Lucio, and Vassilissa.

Jenn Runs Close To Lodge

Jenn Runs Close to Lodge is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe who lives on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. She is the librarian and educator at Wyoming Indian Middle School. She also beads, sews, and paints traditional and contemporary items reflective of her identity. Her picture is “Jenn Runs Close To Lodge as seen by one of her students, T.A.”

Sam Mihara

Sam Mihara is a second-generation Japanese American. His parents were born in Japan and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920’s. Sam was born in the early 1930’s and raised in San Francisco. When World War II broke out, the United States government forced Sam and his family to move to Heart Mountain Camp. After the war ended and he was released from camp, Sam returned to San Francisco. He attended Lick Wilmerding High School and graduated from U. C. Berkeley and UCLA graduate school with engineering degrees. He became a rocket scientist with The Boeing Company, helping to insert many satellites into orbit. Following retirement from Boeing, Sam created his own high-tech consulting firm where he enjoys meeting many clients around the world. Sam is a member of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, a museum created in 2011 at the campsite in Wyoming. Sam has also told his story at numerous schools, colleges and Department of Justice offices. In 2018, Sam received the Paul A. Gagnon Prize from the National Council for History Education.

Explore More

For additional information, vocabulary definitions, activities, and more click here!


Why? Why? What was it like to leave your original home before going into the internment camp?

Why? Why? What were some of the traditions that you celebrated, like holidays?

Welcome to the Kids Ask Why podcast.

Where kids ask the question.

This season the podcast is following my fourth and fifth grade class from Kelly School in Teton County, Wyoming. We have lots of questions and lots to share about the American West.

VASSILISSA:  We are studying human rights in American history. In this episode, we are exploring how Japanese Americans and Native Americans have been mistreated in this country.

CALEB OWENS:  Hello, my name is Caleb Owens, from the Kelly School and I want to learn more about Japanese internment because it’s a topic that interests me. Kai, tell us a little about yourself.

KAI:  Well, I’m Kai and I’m in fifth grade from Kelly school. I like this topic because I was interested in World War I and II. So I wanted to learn more about what happened to the civilians during that and not just the people that were battling against each other. Vasillissa what about you?

VASSILISSA:  Hi, my name is Vassilissa. I’m from Kelly, Wyoming, I’m in fourth grade and I’m interested in learning more about Native American culture and whether they feel discriminated against in today’s society. What about you Lucio?

LUCIO:  Hi, I’m Lucio. I’m a fifth grader at Kelly Elementary. And the reason I picked this topic is because it’s a big part of history for Japanese people.

VASSILISSA:  Today we are talking with Jenn Runs Close To Lodge, who has been an educator for 22 years. She teaches at the Wyoming Indian School, and she is an Oglala Lakota tribal member. She is going to help us understand what it is like to be Native American in Wyoming today.

LUCIO:  Well, I have some questions for you. First of all, what kind of tribes are you from? Or your ancestors, or your relatives, where are they from?

JENN RUNS CLOSE TO LODGE:  All right, so obviously, my ancestors are from America. I’m originally from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, which is the home of the Oglala Lakota tribe, more commonly known as Sioux. Some of the famous chiefs that we had our head men were Crazy Horse and Red Cloud. So I am an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, however, I also have Northern Cheyenne and Isleta Tiwa which is a Pueblo tribe from outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. However, I was raised here on the Wind River Indian Reservation. My stepfather is Northern Arapaho. And so that’s my connection here. And I’ve been here since I was about three years old.

LUCIO:  What was it like to grow up? Was it hard? Was it easy? What was it like?

Powwow, Buffalo Bill Center of the West

JENN:  I think everything depends on where you are. At home, of course, you know, my parents, we had a good home, a good family. I have a younger brother and a younger sister. And they worked, both of them also worked in education. And so my home life was pretty stable. But once I left home, to go to town or to travel, that’s when things were very difficult sometimes, because we’re a native family. And unfortunately, when you’re a native family, and you’re a minority, sometimes you can run into racism, or bigotry. And that can be really tough. But one thing that I was also told is that we also have an obligation to help people understand who we are and where we come from.

LUCIO:  Yeah, what do you think was a really big problem?

JENN:  My last name is not like yours, right? So sometimes it can be difficult just because there are so few people in the United States who have known a Native American, who have met a Native American, or who have even the basic knowledge of what the different tribes, the different tribal members, our history. And so can you imagine calling Verizon to pay your phone bill and telling them what your name is? And that person is like from Atlanta, Georgia, and they’ve never met a native. And they don’t understand just the basics of you trying to tell them that this is your last name. So I’ve actually had some really interesting conversations, where I’ve been accused of being a business because you know, Runs Close To Lodge sounds like maybe a business, or, you know, or I’m making this up. So it is, you know, it can be difficult. Also, just some of the ignorance that we run into, that we don’t pay taxes, that we don’t have jobs, that we’re lazy. Some of those stereotypes that we run in on a pretty consistent basis, can be tiring after a certain point. And I guess, sometimes it kind of worries me, because if you start talking to people that are not American, who are like English, or French, or Spanish, from Spain, they actually know more about Native Americans than our own fellow Americans. And so that can be frustrating sometimes.

KAI:  What were some of the traditions that you celebrated like holidays, and that your ancestors celebrated, and that you celebrate today still?

Powwow, Buffalo Bill Center of the West

JENN:  Well, we celebrate pretty much the same holidays you do, New Year’s, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, the Fourth of July, we celebrate all of those. However, in some of them, like for Thanksgiving, they might more be just about our family and getting together and making sure that you know, we have that time together. So they might not mean the same thing that you are celebrating, but they’re something similar. Growing up, we went to dances, which you would call a powwow where people get dressed in our traditional clothing. And they either sing or they dance, and they participate in different things. And that was a big thing that we did when we were growing up and that we still do today. We go to the mountains together to get tipi poles, or just to spend the day, we go out to the lakes and spend time together. Or we might travel to visit family in different states. Because since our population is so small, if you hold your thumb, your finger now, look at your finger now, and the tip of your finger. If you your entire body was the United States of America, from your head down to your feet, the very tip of your finger would be the only amount of Native Americans there are in this country. There are so few of us. But our family connections are really strong. And so in the summertime, we would travel to South Dakota, spend you know two or three weeks with family, visiting with older family members, creating things, a lot of people so they do traditional crafts, and they teach each other.

KAI:  One of my other questions was, was anybody mean to you about like your last name and being Native American? Like be racist?

JENN:  Yeah. Sadly, yes. And unfortunately, it happens quite a bit. And so one of the things that I kind of want to tell you as well as your listeners is that words hurt, words hurt. And the only way that we can stop those words from hurting is by not saying them, and questions like you have right now, those are perfect, because that’s allowing you the opportunity to learn a little bit about me, and maybe not have those stereotypes. So my last name is Runs Close To Lodge. However, in Lakota, it’s Tikagla Eyanka. That’s how you say it in Lakota. And it actually was translated wrong and its rides among the enemy lodges. And so my great, great, great grandfather, that was his name. And so when it was mistranslated, they changed it to Runs Close To Lodge. However, not everyone has a name like that. We have people with last names of Smith and Brown. Just like you know, Jones, everybody else does. But just because they don’t have a native last name does not mean that they’re not native, or because they, you know, don’t participate in their culture or their traditions.

KAI:  Is there anything that us kids could do to help with that problem that you have about having the last name and stuff?

Wyoming Indian Middle School Logo, Jenn Runs Close To Lodge

JENN:  Listen, that’s the number one thing is when native people are talking, or indigenous people are talking, it’s very important to listen, that is one of the most important things that you can do. So that’s the number one thing that I want to tell you. Number two, is I heard two of you were football fans. So one of the things, unfortunately, with sporting events in the state of Wyoming, is that when we Wyoming Indian goes and plays in different parts of our state. There are people who still don’t understand that doing the war whoop or yelling inappropriate things is rude and inappropriate. And what happens is, when students from other schools are playing the students from my school, or other schools on the reservation, those are kids. And we have to treat them like kids. If they’re on the basketball court, don’t be saying and doing rude things. Remember, they’re children, you’re a child. And so we have to respect each other. And that’s another big issue for me. And then the final thing is, we’re not costumes, we’re not a costume. So my culture is not a costume, a warbonnet or a war club is not a costume. They are very important articles that belong to my culture, to my ceremonies, to my traditions, and for anybody to dress up as a Native American for Halloween is very insulting and hurtful. And it also leads to problems within groups. Because it’s that disrespect, nobody wants to be disrespected, we want to be treated as though we’re equals.

KAI:  I’ll try to do that, I’ll do that and tell all my friends to do that. And basically, a lot, many people that I know, and all the people that I know, when I get the chance to.

JENN:  You’re amazing.

KAI:  Well, I think that’s it.

JENN:  So what I want you guys to do today, is once you leave and you go home, wherever, whenever you can, I want you to get a cup of peppermint tea, and put a little bit of honey in it, and drink it. Because peppermint tea is traditional to the Americas, and we drink it, and we enjoy it. And that’s one way that you can kind of connect with my culture without being disrespectful.

KAI:  Okay, I’ll see if I can do that. I’ll see if I have peppermint tea. And if not, I’ll ask if we can get some.

LUCIO:  It was kind of interesting how she said the tip of your pinky is the only Native Americans in the whole United States, it kind of gave me like a big idea. Like, wow, there’s not that many. I thought there was a lot more. I didn’t realize there were just not that much.

KAI:  Yeah, same. And also when she said that some people thought that her last name was a business. That thing I thought was pretty funny but also kind of sad at the same time. So yeah.

LUCIO:  Yeah, along with Kai that was very sad. Jennifer, like that’s not as really complicated. But her last name, it was probably so sad because imagine getting on the phone with somebody that never had heard your name. Like ever. That one name, basically. And they were always like, oh, are you a business? What number for your business? Like how can I contact this business? It’s my name and they’re probably hmmm.

KAI: Or they would say what’s your real name? When you say your full name, they would say what’s your real last name?

LUCIO: Yeah, that was probably the most sad.

KAI: And she still does basically everything we do. Yep.

LUCIO: And she’s just like us. It’s we’re normal, where everything. She’s just like us. But she has different name. She has different everything. She’s been treated way different than we have. And yeah, that’s kind of sad.

VASSILISSA:  We are speaking today with Sam Mihara, who is a national lecturer who shares his experience at Heart Mountain Internment Camp during World War II.

VASSILISSA:  What words do you use to describe yourself?

SAM MIHARA:  Well, I used to be a rocket scientist until I retired. So, I really don’t call myself a rocket scientist anymore. But today, I would say that I’m a national history teacher. Some people call it a speaker. Some people call it a lecturer.

VASSILISSA:  Thank you. My next question is, what was it like to leave your original home before going into the internment camp?

SAM:  Well, we were very comfortable. It’s hard to describe to people of Wyoming what a San Francisco house looked like. But it’s simple. It was vertical, it was three stories tall, three floors. And it was very, very nice house. My father was quite successful in the newspaper. So, he was able to afford a very, very nice house and we were comfortable. We enjoyed living in the heart of San Francisco.

VASSILISSA:  What were some of the things you packed when you had to leave to the internment camp?

Arrival by Train, Jack Richard Collection, McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West

SAM:  Well, that was kind of interesting. I recall. I was nine years old and I had not traveled much before then. And I vaguely remember my mother packing my bags. When the government gave us the order to get ready for the move. And you can only carry one hand carry like, well not as perhaps as liberal as even an airplane. On an airplane you can carry maybe one large and one small but they said to simply, you know, whatever you can carry one handbag is limit. The problem is the government never told us we were going to Wyoming. You know, because there were camps all over the country. And all they said was, you’re gonna be away. I remember my mother packed what I call California clothing. Had we been told we’re going to northern Wyoming, I think we would have packed differently. But no, they never told us, we didn’t know until we got to northern Wyoming when the train finally stopped. So that was the problem we had in that first winter. It was in Heart Mountain Wyoming that first winter set a new record minus 28 degrees. And I remember it was awful. It was very cold.

VASSILISSA:  How long were you interned in the camp?

SAM:  I went in at age nine in 1942 and I came out three years later, that is age 12.  In 1945.

VASSILISSA:  How big was your living space for your family?

Barracks, Jack Richard Collection, McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West

SAM:  Yeah, the barracks were all identical in design. Each barrack had six rooms of different sizes. The two rooms at the ends were very small for like couples or maybe a couple with a child. Next to the very end ones were the largest and they held up to seven people. The middle of the barrack there were two rooms for medium size. And our family was a family of four people. That is my two parents, my brother, and myself. So, four of us. We were in a room which is exactly 20 feet by 20 feet. That is a 20-foot square. And I remember when I went in for the first time it was really depressing. If you can imagine four beds and if you lay out the beds and look at the space, there’s not much room for anything else. The inside of the room, there was no inside walls. No what we call drywall today, there was no inside wall. There was no insulation. But there was no electricity. No, no water in the room. And it was very, very depressing.

VASSILISSA:  And my very last question is, how was your school experience in the internment camp?

SAM:  When we got there, there was no grammar school. They didn’t even start. They were almost finished with the high school. And we asked why? Because we had people like myself who needed to go to grammar school. And the answer came back, the local people in the area, they complained. Why is the government building new schools for prisoners when the people on the outside don’t get new schools, and they’re not prisoners. So, as a result, the government stopped beyond the one high school. And what that meant was, we had to take some of the barracks and have the people who were assigned to those barracks, we had to have them move out so that we can have barracks converted into grammar schools. And I remember going to the barrack room for the first time for class and no furniture, no desks, no chairs, we had to sit on the floor. Then the carpenters in the prison, made some benches. And what we did was we used those benches for desks, a little later on the carpenters made actual chairs and little tables. So, we were able to get better furnishings for class. The other problem we had, there were not enough teachers. We had some teachers, but there just wasn’t enough for the amount of students we had. So, what the government had to do was to bring in more teachers from the outside. And they had a program to hire white teachers from all over the country and they came and lived with us. Some 35 teachers came, and they lived with us at the Heart Mountain Camp and they had their own barrack inside the prison. The other problem we had was there were no school books, the government did not provide for school books. I think you may be familiar with a religious group called the Quakers in the country, the Quakers came to our help and what they did was they collected used schoolbooks from all over and they sent that to the camps. So now we had some school books that we can use, even though it was used, it’s still a book and so we’re able to use that to help study and learn about what was needed.

CALEB:  What did they give you food wise there? What were you there to eat?

SAM:  The government did not know the kind of food the Japanese eat. For example, there would be bread, there would be potatoes, and there would be pickled vegetables. You can imagine pickled canned vegetables. Once in a while, we would get a little bit of protein in the form of liver, and even once in a while. Well, it was some strange, strange meats that that we really did not care for. But the point is Japanese in 1942, we did not eat that kind of food. We love fresh vegetables. We like rice, we like fish. We like a little poultry. So, you know we love eggs and whole milk. So, what happened was the farmers in the prison decided to grow our own food. The problem is the land around Heart Mountain. In those days it was sagebrush covered, there was no irrigation set up. So, these farmers in the camp they worked hard. And on that property just outside the camp, they cleared the land. They brought in water irrigation from the Shoshone River Bridge and using other methods they grew our food, so we had all kinds of fresh vegetables. We had a little chicken farm. So, we had some poultry, we had eggs. And so, the food became much better.

CALEB:  What generation were you? Like were you Issei? Nisei or something? What would you be considered?

SAM:  Oh, yes, you know the difference between those terms. For those of you who don’t know, the first generation are the people who were the immigrants, our parents. And they call themselves Issei, is comes from the number one in Japanese, which is ichi. So, the first generation is our parents. The second generation is the Nisei, which is me. I’m a second generation born in America to Japanese Americans. And the third generation would be my children. So, they would be Sansei san comes from the number three in Japanese, which is san.

CALEB:  My next question is, what did you do during the day? Like, did you hang out at your home? Or did you go play baseball, if that was available?

Guard Tower, Jack Richard Collection, McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West

SAM:  During the day, the week-day, you know, we were busy in school. But outside of that, what did we do with our free time? Well, the parents knew that so, they developed several things. They developed organized activities, like Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, and they had a lot of hobby type clubs. We did things that we thought would be interesting at my age. We started collecting things. That property that we were at, at Heart Mountain, that used to be Native American Indian property, that’s where they lived, the Crow Indians. So, we would find arrowheads, and we would have collections of arrowheads, and have a competition who had the best collection. Then we got into some crazy things, like collecting rattlesnake rattles. In other words the tail, we would capture the rattlesnake and cut off the tail and take up a collection and have a contest. How many rattles can you catch in one month? Some of my friends collected scorpions, and they started a zoo, a collection of scorpions. Other friends of mine, in fact, one good friend of mine, he raised wild birds, he would catch birds. So, we did lots of these kinds of things. We did some crazy things, by the way, with all the security and the barbed wire fence. The guards with the 30 caliber rifles on top of the guard tower. Some of us escaped for the day. We were bored, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to go down to the river, the Shoshone River. So, when the guards were not looking or sometimes they didn’t even come to their tower, we would sneak out and go through the barbed wire fence and go down to the river. But we always came back.

CALEB:  What do you want us to know about you? What do you think is the most important message for everyone that you speak to, to know about?

SAM:  I want people to know what really happened. I want to educate people, I want to teach them. I want to tell them, show pictures, describe what it was like and tell them it should have never happened. It should never have happened. Because it was a clear violation of the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution says no one will be denied liberty, and no one will be denied justice. You all say that every morning in the Pledge of Allegiance. Right? You have heard the phrase with liberty and justice for all. All right. Well, when an armed guard comes to your house, removes you, and puts you in a prison without a good reason. That is, without accusing you of a crime. The only reason was you’re a different race. And if the government, if any guard does that, anyone with a weapon does that. You have been violated. You’ve lost your most important civil right in the Constitution. You lost liberty and you lost justice. Well, the most important lesson is it should never have happened and it could happen again to others. And so that’s my lesson, that it could happen to others, everyone should know what really happened.

VASSILISSA:  One thing that really surprised me was that he was the Nisei generation instead of the Sansei generation. I thought he would be Nisei.

CALEB:  One of the main things is that I was so surprised that you could have like, people that are babies up to like grown men and women. And you could have like a five-year-old pretty much in jail eating almost nothing. Probably really sick. Having a horrible life, you know, and that’s just so sad for people to have such a complicated time at that young age.

VASSILISSA:  One thing I do want to add was, um, Sam, he talked about a lot on how the schools were small and they had like old benches and desks, and felt like they hardly put any effort into the camps. And that felt pretty heartbreaking that they’re, like, removing all these people from their homes and then expecting them to live like 100% differently from how they used to. He used to have a huge house, and there was a lot of foods that they weren’t used to eating.

That’s Why we Ask Why?