Wednesday, April 5, 2017

7 Questions With Dakota Russell, Heart Mountain Interpretative Center

Dakota Russell has spent the past twenty years working in the field of cultural interpretation. He is currently the museum manager at Heart Mountain Interpretive Center  (http://heartmountain.org/ ) in Park County, Wyoming.

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
It's been a gradual process. I started working at a historic house museum when I was a teenager. Back then, the appeal was getting to go "behind the ropes" into forbidden and often forgotten areas. I soon discovered that all of history is like that-- there's always something new to uncover and explore. Instilling that same feeling of discovery in others is a big part of what keeps me hooked on history.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
It’s how I met my wife! We were both working at different sites related to the Daniel Boone family, and we started sharing notes and collaborating on programs. We both still work in museums today, so there’s a lot of shop talked at the dinner table. I’m an interpreter and she’s a registrar, so often we come at problems from entirely different directions. Leaning on each other’s expertise can be extremely helpful in solving them.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
I started out as a part-time interpreter at Battle of Lexington State Historic Site in Lexington, Mo. That’s where I learned the ropes. Eventually, I became the full time interpreter at Nathan Boone Homestead State Historic Site in Ash Grove, Mo. The site had yet to open to the public at that time. My primary job was to research and develop the interpretation. I had an amazing opportunity to decide what stories we would tell, and how we would tell them. I became so attached that I stuck around for another 15 years! I left Missouri for Wyoming this past summer, and joined the staff at Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, where I’m excited to delve into an entirely new subject and an entirely new era of history.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
I tend to think of history somewhat the same way I think of novels or movies or music: they’re all stories we choose to tell. The stories we tell about the past can encourage people to look differently at their own lives and the world they live in. That, in turn, can affect our future. For that reason, I think it’s important to expose people to a diversity of viewpoints and voices from history.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I really enjoy digging up forgotten stories or perspectives. Back at Nathan Boone Homestead State Historic Site, one of my most satisfying projects was uncovering a rich African American history of the place, which began with slavery and continued well into the 20th century. It opened up whole new ways to interpret the site. I guess I’m most interested in preserving the lives of people who didn’t have the power or means to write themselves into history. That’s a big part of what drew me to Heart Mountain Interpretive Center and the chance to tell the stories of more than 14,000 Japanese Americans confined there during World War II.

6. What is the mission of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center?
The mission of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation is to:
       Preserve and memorialize the Heart Mountain World War II Japanese American Confinement Site and the stories that symbolize the fragility of democracy;
       Educate the public about the history of the illegal imprisonment of Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain during World War II and its impact on the Big Horn Basin;
       and Support inquiry, research and outreach to highlight the lessons of the Japanese American confinement and their relevance to the preservation of liberty and civil rights for all Americans today.

7. What will visitors take away from Heart Mountain?

We want our visitors to understand that democracy is an activity, not an assumption. Japanese American incarceration didn’t happen in some “dark period” of our national history. It happened when the US was supposed to be at its best, a paragon of freedom doing battle against ultimate evil. All this while we were incarcerating our own citizens because of their race. Fear and hatred are powerful forces, and it wouldn’t take a huge cultural shift for this to happen again. All it would take is for us to let our guard down. We all have a responsibility to actively support each other’s rights, and sometimes we have to question or speak against authority. If we fail to do that, democracy means very little.