We mark this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by celebrating the stories and experiences of Asian Americans behind our country’s national monuments and sites.
As someone who grew up spending a lot of time in the parks of the American West, I’m a strong believer in the invigorating and transformative power of our national and natural spaces. More recently, however, I’ve come to appreciate the stories behind these incredible sites—stories through which our shared American history is made real, human, and resonant.
When I served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of the Interior under President Obama, I led a study to gather the stories, places, and people of Asian American and Pacific Island heritage. It was a part of a broader effort to increase the number of stories told through the National Park Service so they would include those of women, people of color, and other marginalized communities—African American, Latino, LGBTQ, Asian, indigenous, and more. When our team started the task, only 8 percent of all historic sites that we commemorated—monuments, parks, landmarks—told the stories of those who weren’t white or of European ancestry. The ultimate goal was to reflect the multitude of backgrounds in our country and feature their relationships to these special places in America.
As a Korean American, the project hit home for me professionally and personally. In my family’s travels to parks and monuments during my youth, it was rare and surprising to find any stories of Asians or other cultures and perspectives.
The reason for this dearth became evident during the project. Although many Asian Americans constructed railroads and contributed their lives to other public works projects in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were subject to racism and discrimination. This occurred systemically, through laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which sought to restrict immigration into the United States from China on the grounds that Chinese workers were taking jobs from native-born Americans. And it occurred institutionally, when Asians and other minorities were casually excluded from photos documenting Interior Department projects.
Despite the attempts to blot out their presence, compelling stories have emerged that highlight the significant roles Asian Americans played in the building and shaping of America. This includes the story of Ty Sing, a Chinese cook for the U.S. Geologic Service who created elaborate, legendary meals in Yosemite’s backcountry for 28 years, and the experiences of Filipino farmworkers in the 1960s who joined forces with Latino laborers to fight for their union rights at the Forty Acres, a piece of land that became the headquarters for the United Farm Workers of America. These narratives all deserve a place in our collective memory.
A great place to start learning is at Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum. It honors Wing Luke, the first Asian American to be elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest, who dedicated his service to protecting people from racial discrimination in housing and real estate. Currently, it is one of the few museums in the United States dedicated to the wide range of the Asian Pacific American experience. Under my tenure at the Department of the Interior, it became designated as an affiliated area of the National Park Service—a mark of importance to our heritage.
Other stories that warrant our attention come from Honouliuli National Monument on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The site served as an internment camp during World War II for 400 Japanese, U.S. citizens, and people of European ancestry who were suspected of disloyalty, and a place of incarceration for 4,000 prisoners of war. The stories serve as stark reminders of how we should never let racism and prejudice override our civil liberties.
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month gives us an opportunity to celebrate our shared history, as well as acknowledge the longstanding contributions Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made throughout our history despite the discrimination they faced. We also mark this month knowing that these stories are only parts of a much larger, bigger, and richer picture of the American experience that includes many more cultures and backgrounds. They need to be reflected as well, and we have only begun to scratch the surface.
Explore the stories and places for yourselves—they belong to each and every American.