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Indian tribes clash, vying for their place in Yosemite's history

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Garance Burke
Associated Press / June 15, 2008

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - Visitors to Yosemite Valley have for decades been taught about the Southern Sierra Miwok, whose ancestral ties to the park are venerated in books, brochures, and a replica village built near the park's roaring falls.

Now, another band of American Indians is calling part of that story a total invention.

Joe Rhoan, who traces his ancestry to Paiute peoples from the park's eastern edge, claims his elders were Yosemite's first stewards and that the Miwok are playing down the Paiute role in the area.

"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."

Yosemite historians chafe at the suggestion their exhibits could be wrong, and say they've been crafted over years drawing from academic research, geological records, and consultations with seven American Indian tribes that advise the park on its interpretive programs, including two Paiute bands in the Eastern Sierra.

Such disputes are beginning to surface as the nation's parks start to reconcile the sometimes brutal events that helped to create today's cherished preserves, 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 Maria Lebrado was one of few survivors of a massacre in 1851, in which white settlers drove out the native families who lived in and migrated through the valley.

Five years later, tourist magazines were promoting Yosemite as a pleasuring ground for the moneyed classes of San Francisco. By 1892, 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 Miwok 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 as his backyard.

He says the Miwok have been working to keep Indian cultural and spiritual traditions alive in Yosemite. The tribe plans to build a new cultural center on the old village grounds with a sweat lodge and a roundhouse they propose as a gathering place for all area tribes. "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, cites early photos of Yosemite as evidence that early inhabitants were Paiute.

Brochini, a Park Service employee who also has Italian and Paiute blood, acknowledges that intermarrying means some early valley residents were Yokut, Chukchansi, and Mono - as well as Paiute. Rhoan is a distant cousin of Brochini.

Paiutes are already mentioned in displays at a visitors center that opened last year, and on signs in the native museum. But Andrews wants the park to go further. He would like to see signs rewritten and photographs relabeled to say the park's original stewards were all Paiute. He also objects to the thousands of dollars in payments for cultural services the park has made to the nonprofit organization the Miwok tribe formed as they seek federal recognition.

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