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Parks in partnership: Native American heritage underlies the 'cultural landscape' of more than 50 national park units and plays a crucial role in the visitor experience.

Sitka, Alaska. At the east end of this island town, the incoming tide laps at a rocky beach, raindrops glistening in morning sun on spruce boughs and wild Sitka roses.

Travelers visiting Sitka National Historical Park discover that these 106 acres straddling the mouth of the Indian River are not mere scenic real estate. On the peninsula, the Kiksadi clan of the Tlingit Indians resisted a six-day siege by colonizing Russians. Overpowered, these Raven-Frog people lost the fort, their village of Shee Atika, their homelands. It was September 1804.

Today, the battle and Kiksadi fort sites he within park boundaries, along a two-mile wooded path dotted with a collection of historic cedar totem poles. Today, the Tlingit operate the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center at the park in a joint effort with the National Park Service (NPS) to bring Native history and culture to visitors.

Today, this tiny park on an isolated island embodies one of the most successful ways national parks form partnerships with today's Native peoples.

"Native American cultures are central to the interpretive experience of visitors to many national park units," says Emogene Bevitt, program specialist with the NPS American Indian Liaison Office. She estimates that more than 50 of the 376 NPS sites interpret Native cultures or their early contact with Europeans. In about 30 of those, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, or Native Hawaiians address their own heritage and here-and-now issues in their homelands that have become national parks.

Political interactions between tribal governments and NPS and other federal and state agencies range from acrimonious to cooperative. Volatile issues include treaty interpretation, boundaries, natural resource access, identification and management of sacred sites, and archaeology research.

But friction smoothes in park interpretation programs where Natives are guides, presenters, and interpreters. In NPS units such as Sitka National Historical Park, Glacier National Park in Montana, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, visitors have a chance to learn directly from native populations.

At Sitka's lndian Cultural Center, Tlingit elder Louis Minard sets aside a silver bracelet he's carving according to the classic Tlingit formlines that depict Eagle, Raven, and other themes. He pushes up his magnifying lens to tell how the Tlingit came to have copper and silver, how they've been working it for 175 years, how he did not start learning until he was past 50. His story is living history in the truest sense: He's not playing the role of someone long gone; he's presenting himself.

He was born in Kake, a village on Kupreanof Island to the east. "I came to Sitka as a schoolboy, when there were mostly Tlingits here," he recalls. It was 1930. The town boasted two Tin Lizzies, a flatbed truck, and a horse. Minard, at 13, enrolled in Sheldon Jackson School, a missionary institution that is now a college. Studied to be a machinist, later worked on fishing vessels. Got drafted, spent World War II in the Aleutian Islands training "men who had never smelled the salt sea," he says.

He was discharged Christmas Eve 1945, and by New Year's, he had returned to Sitka. Fished again. Became a cook for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Health Service. Retired in 1970 with rheumatoid arthritis.

At the Cathedral Arms apartments in the center of Sitka, "I drank coffee and read books," he recalls. "Next door was a woodcarver who said, `Come out to the cultural center. We have free coffee.' So, I came limping out here. I saw an old man carving and I thought, `Here is something to occupy my time.' I spoke Tlingit: `Is it all right with you if I came to learn?'"

Later Minard also studied with carver A. P. Johnson, and in 1978, the center asked him to become the resident silver carver. "`I'm not good at it yet,'" he said to them. "`But you speak perfect Tlingit and you know the history,' they said. `Come as on-the-job training.' I've been here ever since."

Begun in 1969 by the Alaska Native Brotherhood, the center reorganized in 1993 as an independent non-profit organization. Currently, the Park Service funds three center artisans in the summer -- Minard, Tommy Joseph, who is a woodcarver, and weaver and beadworker Karen Kane.

"The park goal is to have artists for tourists to see," says Kathie Wasserman, center director. In turn, park Superintendent Gary Gauthier keeps the center's wing open in the winter so the artists can work and teach, though they aren't paid.

Off-season work resulted in the April 1996 raising of the 35-foot Tlingit History Totem Pole at the park entrance. Last winter, the center sponsored workshops to document tribal knowledge and customs. "We're focusing on our elders and our young people," says Dave Galanin, center president and silver carver who studies with Minard. "Bringing them together is insurance for where we Tlingit are going in the future."

The long months of pole-carving produced "a real change in how Sitka Native people perceived the park," says Gauthier. "They came more often. It became more like home, their place again. The big stuff is neat, but the center is important to the National Park Service daily. It's not just artistic demonstration, but elders telling stories. No matter how much training, an interpreter can't do it. The Tlingit defer to their elders. You're supposed to listen. If you're smart, you do."

The partnership works in Sitka partly because the park and the center are small, under one roof Gauthier's office is not 30 paces from the center, and the relationship among him, Galanin, Wasserman, and others reflects a strong personal commitment.

But a partnership works, too, in Glacier National Park's million-plus acres, where Blackfeet singer Jack Gladstone often drives 80 miles to give an evening program to a standing-room-only crowd. Sometimes he tens stories and sings at one of the "Native American Speaks" campfires. Sometimes he performs his multimedia "Native Reflections" in the St. Mary Visitor Center, just a few miles from where his grandparents homesteaded not long after the Blackfeet ceded what is now the eastern half of the park to the United States in an 1895 treaty.

In a voice and style reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot, Gladstone sings his version of the legend of Scarface, a young Blackfeet man who journeyed to the sun for love. Another of his songs tells how winter once reigned supreme because a grizzly bear stole the Chinook wind. "Every nuance of animal and plant was mythologized and recognized in tradition," he says. "People formed a relationship with all this and achieved a balance that lasted thousands of years -- until we were caught up shopping at Wal-Mart."

When he launches into "Hudson Bay Blues," his swingy song always brings laughter but teaches history too. in the first verse, the Hudson's Bay Company arrives in Blackfeet country in 1793 and builds a trading post offering "flintlocks, wool socks, coffee beans, denim jeans" that got the Blackfeet so ready for shopping that "Now we've got Spandex, Gore-tex, Nike Airs, Gummi Bears, ceiling fans, frying pans, turkey, veal, shrimp, or Spam...."

At hour's end, even little kids clamor for more. Maybe he will do "Faces the Blizzard" about the buffalo, whom he calls "my black-hooved brother." Or perhaps "Napi Becomes a Wolf," one of myriad tales of the creator/trickster of Blackfeet mythology.

These Native programs -- which now include Salish and Kootenai as well as Blackfeet lecturers, drummers, and dancers -- began in the early 1980s, funded by the Glacier Natural History Association and other private sources. In 1984, says Bruce Fladmark, now cultural resources specialist at Glacier, "I had a tough time finding even one Native interpreter." The next year, he found Gladstone, who "took to showing up when others were scheduled, just to see if they were there. If not, he jumped in, dashing across a couple of campsites and landing right behind me as I introduced the program."

Now Glacier offers a Native program nearly every day in July and August. In addition, two Blackfeet interpreters work as summer rangers on the east side of the park, which borders the Blackfeet Reservation. "This needed to be Native Americans interpreting their own culture," says Cindy Nielsen, Glacier's chief of interpretation from 1989 to 1996. "When we romanticize about a Native culture, we lose sight that it's a growing, living culture, not an artifact."

The same appreciation for living culture is nowhere more apparent than in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, where the Navajo still own the 83,840 acres. Kit Carson drove the Navajo from this red sandstone canyon system in 1864 and forced them on The Long Walk to exile 400 miles east in New Mexico. Four years later, "They came home to Canyon de Chelly," says monument Superintendent Anna Marie Fender. "The canyon is the heart and soul of the Navajo people. We non-Indians look at `tourist attractions,' but to the Navajo these are sacred sites."

Though the impetus for park protection came from white archaeologists, the Navajo "realized Canyon de Chelly held national significance and wanted it recognized, provided the people would not be removed from the land," says Fender. And they were not when the monument was created in 1931. "It's one of the first true partnerships," she adds. "We're preserving and protecting in partnership with a tribe."

Except for walking the mile-and-a-quarter trail to White House Ruin and following the north and south rim drives, no visitor enters Canyon de Chelly without a Navajo guide. A few of those guides organized about 30 years ago. Now, the 95-member Canyon de Chelly Guides Association provides horse operators, four-wheel-drive rentals, and hiking and step-on guides. Members also lead Park Service hikes and programs and conduct tours through Thunderbird Lodge near park headquarters. Most of the park's small staff is Navajo, among them Chief of interpretation Wilson Hunter.

"This is home, the canyon," Hunter says. As a young adult, he worked in construction, as a silversmith, and then in maintenance and law enforcement for NPS before moving into interpretation about ten years ago. The switch felt to him surprisingly natural. "My grandmother said, `It's not your mouth you learn with, but your other senses,'" he recalls. "That's why we have two of everything else -- ears, eyes, nostrils, hands. Your mouth is for sharing, everything else you learn with. She never used the word `teach.' It's `sharing.'"

Hunter shares his ideas in training sessions. "I compare the Park Service goals and mission to our traditional values," he says. "There are lots of similarities. Sensitivity training is important all the way up the line in the federal and tribal governments."

The Navajo guides, such as Louis Minard in Sitka, are living history themselves, from families that, after four or five centuries, still pasture their sheep and goats in the canyon and tend their corn and peach trees on the flats of Chinle Wash. They also interpret the much older Anasazi pueblo ruins clinging to the canyon walls. The Anasazi -- vanished by the 14th century -- fashioned cliff settlements with as many as 90 rooms in four stories snuggled into nearly vertical sandstone. Guides and visitors alike puzzle: Where did they come from? Where did they go? How did they keep toddlers from falling out the front doors?

The Navajo themselves set their log hogans on the flats. On the canyon rim 800 feet above, a stiff desert wind blows through pinon pines and juniper. Below, Navajo corn and orchards appear as green oases along the glittering, snaking curves of Chinle Wash, ever reworking the canyon floor with scouring sands. In Canyon del Muerto, the north fork of Chinle Wash, the monolith called Navajo Fortress still stands sentinel. With binoculars, the pole "ladders" the Navajo used to climb it are still visible to a visitor. It was here the Navajo sought refuge from both the Spaniards and the American military.

These canyons also provide Hunter with his metaphor for partnerships. "People talk about `bridging,'" he says. "But with a bridge, two cultures come halfway, and then pull. A river [however] comes from all directions, comes together, and slows together. No pulling, but weaving. Naturally. We people come in all different colors. Look at a finished rug, how beautiful it is. We just have to weave our threads."

It's a process continued daily at Sitka, Glacier, and Canyon de Chelly.

Solving Sticky Issues

David Mihalic, superintendent at Glacier National Park in Montana since 1994, is one-quarter Oglala Sioux. "It doesn't necessarily give me credibility with the Blackfeet," he says, "but perhaps I can understand their perspectives a little better."

These insights help Mihalic deal with potentially divisive issues, such as those involving boudaries. Before the treaty of 1895, the eastern half of the park was Blackfeet territory; it now adjoins the current Blackfeet reservation. For years the boundary has been rife with cattle trespass problems that the park has tried to solve by fencing. The Blackfeet always object.

"That's where being an Indian helps me, to more easily see that while park people think the fence is no big deal, to the Blackfeet, it is a major issue," Mihalic says. "For them, the fence has nothing to do with cattle. It symbolizes this: As long as there is no fence, Blackfeet still have rights of access, it is still Blackfeet land.

"We have to try again to solve this problem by looking for shared values. The Blackfeet and the Park Service are in this for the long haul. And we have a shared vision. We both treasure the land, and in some sense, both hold spiritual values here at the Backbone of the World. Maybe the fence isn't the bigger issue."
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Title Annotation:includes a related article on the attitude of a part-Blackfoot park supervisor
Author:Bowman, Sally-Jo
Publication:National Parks
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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