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Tribes clash in bid for place in Yosemite National Park's history

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By Garance Burke -- Associated Press

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) - 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 said 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 U.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 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 said 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.

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''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 refurbished visitor's center that opened last year, and on signs in the Native museum.

But Andrews wants the park to go further: He'd 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.

Officials said such criticisms 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 exhibits at Mount Rushmore National Memorial 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 issues including ways to help heal wounds stemming from the country's violent history with American Indians.

In Death Valley National Park, members of the federally recognized Timbisha Shoshone Tribe are working under a Park Service grant to map sites of cultural and historical significance. In 2000, after decades of negotiation, the tribe was ceded acres of park land as a part of its ancestral territory.

Pat Parker, chief of the Park Service's American Indian liaison office in Washington, lauded such efforts and said the agency plans to issue 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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