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Native Americans want a more accurate history of Sacramento's founder

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story takes us to a tourist attraction in Sacramento, Calif. Sutter's Fort, now in the center of the city, was settled by the Swiss immigrant John Sutter. And park staff there are now trying to more accurately reflect the complexity of Sutter's life and the effect white settlers had on Indigenous people. Here's CapRadio's Pauline Bartolone.

(CROSSTALK)

PAULINE BARTOLONE, BYLINE: California schoolchildren shuffle into this adobe fort in the center of Sacramento each year to learn about the Swiss settler John Sutter.

DEVIN MCCUTCHEN: All right, everyone, I want to tell you where you are. You're in the orientation room right now.

BARTOLONE: Park guide Devin McCutchen wears a dark green ranger uniform. Until recently, some park staff dressed up in 19th century attire. And kids reenacted characters from the era. But the education here is starting to change.

MCCUTCHEN: What I was just talking with the kids here about is this space is the carpenter shop, right?

BARTOLONE: The wood shop now provides a teaching moment about colonialism.

MCCUTCHEN: The very wood that a carpenter would work from here in Sacramento Valley would have likely have been an oak tree. That oak tree would have been the food source for the Native Americans.

BARTOLONE: While Oaks gave the tribal Nisenan and Miwok people acorns to eat, Sutter saw the trees as a source of lumber.

MCCUTCHEN: When you cut it down and value it as a commodity, it's at the expense of the Native people, who have been here since time immemorial.

BARTOLONE: The lessons here weren't always so well-rounded. Until recently, they were more focused on a heroic narrative of Sutter as a founder of Sacramento and a gold rush-era pioneer. But after the George Floyd protests, park officials started working with local Native American tribes to create a more accurate picture of Sutter's legacy.

RHONDA POPE FLORES: He destroyed so much of our culture and history and just took over, you know, lands.

BARTOLONE: Rhonda Pope Flores is the chairwoman of the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians. She wants fort visitors to know Native people lived here first. And John Sutter violently disrupted their ways of life.

POPE FLORES: Many people lost their lives. Many women were raped and enslaved, and families torn apart, as a result of his, you know, dream.

BARTOLONE: Sutter's frontier dream was a nightmare for the local tribes. One historical account describes hundreds of Native people working for him in slave-like conditions, eating out of troughs meant for livestock. Sutter's biographer, Albert Hurtado, says he attacked and trafficked Indigenous people.

ALBERT HURTADO: He had no compunction about taking some men and a cannon and shelling an Indian rancheria, killing people indiscriminately.

BARTOLONE: However, Hurtado says, John Sutter was a complicated man. He preferred to use diplomacy before violence.

HURTADO: You have to show him in all of his different facets.

BARTOLONE: The state of California is evaluating dozens of sites to determine if a new name or updated information is in order. Communities around the country are doing this work, too, says Autumn Saxton-Ross of the National Recreation and Park Association. And it's necessary for racial healing.

AUTUMN SAXTON-ROSS: If we are going to tell history, it needs to be accurate. So we have to actually recognize that things sucked for a really long time.

BARTOLONE: California parks started with native groups and will now invite the public to chime in about reinterpreting Sutter's Fort. The state park agency hopes it will soon be a place to learn more about the people who were here long before John Sutter arrived.

For NPR news, I'm Pauline Bartolone in Sacramento.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "DYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.