Tribes clash over Yosemite history
By GARANCE BURKE
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
last updated: June 15, 2008 03:49:45 AM
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- For decades, visitors to Yosemite Valley have been taught the history of the Southern Sierra Mewuk, whose ancestral ties to the park are venerated in books, brochures and a replica Indian village built near the park's roaring falls.
Now, a second band of American Indians is calling that story a total invention.
Joe Rhoan, who traces his ancestry back to Paiute peoples from the park's eastern edge, is one of potentially hundreds claiming that his elders were the park's first stewards and that the Mewuk play down the Paiute role in the park's records.
"The park manufactured a lot of its history," said Rhoan, of Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento. "You've got living direct descendants of the people in old photos displayed in exhibits telling the park they have the wrong signs up, and they're not listening to us."
Historians defend exhibits
Yosemite historians chafe at the suggestion their exhibits could be wrong, and say they've been crafted over years of drawing from academic research, geological records and careful consultations with seven American Indian tribes that advise the park on its interpretive programs, including two Paiute bands in the Eastern Sierra.
Yet as the country's parks start to reconcile the sometimes brutal events that helped to create cherished wilderness, these kinds of fights over recognition are beginning to surface, said Bob Sutton, the National Park Service's chief historian.
"In the past, we operated with this idea that great men made American parks what they were, so we wrote stories about a lot of great white men," Sutton said. "In some instances, the history we have on the books may not be accurate, and we need to take a lot of care in making sure we're telling it correctly."
Rhoan's great-grandmother was one of few survivors of a massacre in 1851 in which white settlers drove out the native families living in and migrating through the valley.
Five years later, tourist magazines were promoting Yosemite as a pleasuring ground for the moneyed classes of San Francisco.
By 1892, when conservationist John Muir founded the Sierra Club, most surviving Indians had left the area, or had taken jobs working as maids, tree fellers or dancers to entertain visitors.
Tony Brochini, chairman of the 800-member Southern Sierra Mewuk tribe, was born in the last Indian village in the valley in 1951 and grew up exploring the park's flowering meadows and swift rivers.
He says the Mewuk have been cautious not to overstep their leadership in keeping Indian cultural and spiritual traditions alive in Yosemite.
"We're the indigenous people of Yosemite Valley and have the most lineal descent to this area, and are the spiritual leaders for all tribal activities," he said. "The disgruntled ones want that whole history changed."
Rhoan and another Paiute activist, David Andrews, have sent Yosemite's tribal liaison reams of information they say demonstrates the park's improprieties.
Andrews, a member of the Walker River Paiute reservation in Nevada, says firsthand accounts from the mid-1800s prove Te-naya, the Ahwahnee Indian chief, was Mono Lake Paiute. He cites Eadweard Muybridge's early photos of Yosemite as further evidence that early inhabitants were Paiute.
Brochini, a park service employee who also has Italian and Paiute blood, acknowledges that tribal intermarrying means some early valley residents were Yokut, Chuk-chansi and Mono as well as Paiute.
Until recently, Rhoan, a distant cousin of Brochini's, also was a member of the Mewuk tribe.
Rewritten signs, relabeled photos sought
Paiutes already are mentioned in displays on signs in the native museum at a refurbished visitor's center that opened last year. But Andrews wants the park to go a step further. He'd like to see signs rewritten and photographs relabeled to say the park's original stewards were Paiute.
"They're angry that a decision was made to replicate a Mewuk village. It's one topic. No more, no less," said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. "We're not going to pull the books off the shelves according to one person that calls us on the telephone."
Still, officials said the group's critiques have in part spurred park historians to consider taking a second look at its Indian historical materials when funding is available.
Gerard Baker has been overhauling Mount Rushmore's exhibits since he became the park's first American Indian superintendent in 2004. This spring, he organized a summit of Lakota, Nakota and Dakota elders to discuss, in part, how to change programming and help heal wounds stemming from the country's violent history with American Indians.
In Death Valley National Park, members of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe are working under a park service grant to map out sites of cultural and historical significance. In 2000, after decades of negotiation, the tribe was ceded acres of park land as a part of their ancestral territory.
Pat Parker, chief of the park service's American Indian liaison office, lauded such efforts and said the park service planned to issue new guidelines detailing how parks should work with tribes to ensure visitors are told a complete history.
"What people know about the landscape in our parks, the body of knowledge that they've carried through from generation to generation and have memorialized in songs and stories, is a resource to be protected just as much as the trees and the rocks and the fish," Parker said.
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