Central Valley

Identity of Yosemite Indians sought in the mists of history

Who were the early inhabitants of Yosemite Valley -- Miwoks or Mono Lake Paiutes?

The answer matters to David Andrews, a Paiute who believes his ancestors' history has been underplayed by the National Park Service.

Yosemite National Park's historical displays mention both Indian groups as having a presence in the glacially carved valley. But the park has generally given the Miwok more prominence.

Andrews believes that history needs to be rewritten. He has led a two-year effort to persuade the park to give the Paiutes a more prominent role in displays chronicling the Valley's earliest inhabitants.

"What they are teaching little Johnny is false. I find it offensive," said Andrews, 55, who lives in Sacramento and is chairman of the Yosemite Mono Lake Paiute Community.

Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman said the park has based its historical displays on academic research and early historical accounts.

"If there's proof something that's been done is incorrect, we'd change it," Gediman said. But, he added, the park service remains unconvinced at this time that it has to change its exhibits.

Having Yosemite's story reflect the Paiute's role is a matter of cultural pride and historical accuracy, said Andrews, who said his effort is supported by other members of the Paiute community. It's also important, he said, for building a case with the federal government to have an Indian community formally recognized as a tribe.

Neither the Southern Sierra Miwok nor the Yosemite Mono Lake Paiutes have been formally recognized. The Miwok have sought recognition, and Andrews said his group of Paiutes also is seeking recognition.

Recognition as a tribe would enable members to receive Indian health benefits, form their own government and build a casino on Indian trust land, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Andrews said he has no interest in getting a casino. But he contends Yosemite officials are favoring Miwok in the Valley's history to help that community attain tribal recognition -- and possibly rights to build a casino. Gediman said the park would not assist the southern Sierra Miwok get federal tribal recognition for that or any other reason.

Bill Leonard, a Miwok and former chairman of the American Indian Council of Mariposa County, acknowledged that the Southern Sierra Miwok have discussed a casino in the past. But, he added, the Miwok have been trying to get federal recognition for at least 35 years -- well before casinos were an issue.

As for Andrews' effort to change Yosemite's history, Leonard said the park can always make improvements, but tacking Miwok or Paiute labels on certain historical figures is tough.

"The thing is, everyone is a little of both. Everyone is a mixture of Miwok, Paiute and Chukchansi," Leonard said.

Much of Yosemite Valley's early history is based on works published after the Mariposa Indian War of 1850-1851. The war resulted from clashes between Indians and white settlers scouring the Sierra Nevada foothills for gold.

"There was no field work done between the end of the Mariposa Indian War in 1851 and the early 20th century. ... That's a problem for anyone studying the Indians in the central Sierra," said Bill Secrest Jr., a local historian and librarian at Fresno County Public Library.

"The Indian history they have after 1851 is largely a reconstruction. ... You don't have accounts to compare to and witnesses."

But some early explorers said Yosemite was inhabited by Miwok and Paiute -- and Andrews has pointed to some of those accounts to support his case for the Paiute.

Andrews said he began two years ago to challenge the park's portrayals of Indians in displays at Yosemite's museum and new visitor center.

Some of the American Indian photos on display are labeled only as "Yosemite Indian." He said many of the photos are of Paiutes. He said he has documents to prove it.

Andrews brought documents and met with park staffers in December but the park didn't change anything, Gediman said. Gediman said the park can't just take someone's word on what he or she thinks is an accurate presentation of history.

Some photos on display in Yosemite don't list names or say if they are Paiute, Miwok or another Indian group because researchers couldn't identify them, Gediman said.

Kathleen Hull, a University of California at Merced assistant professor of anthropology, said the Indians living in Yosemite Valley on a permanent or seasonal basis after 1800 were of various affiliations, including Miwoks, Paiutes and Yokuts.

But Hull, who worked for the National Park Service for six years and has researched Yosemite Valley Indians, acknowledged that history can be interpreted differently.

Andrews, for example, counts among the Paiutes Chief Tenaya, the leader of the Yosemite Indians when soldiers entered the valley during the Mariposa Indian War.

Hull, though, said Tenaya's mother was Paiute but his father may have been Miwok.

"It's clear from historical accounts that his mother was Mono Paiute but his father was Awahnichi. So the question becomes 'Who were the Awahnichi?' " she said.

Hull said there's good reason to believe the Awahnichi were Miwok-speaking people based on the language and various other cultural traits.

She added that the Miwok were concentrated in the foothills and mountains on the western slope of the central Sierra Nevada mountains while Paiutes were on the eastern side.

Despite such questions, Andrews said he will continue to press his case with Yosemite National Park.

"I want them to correct the history," he said.