Administrative History
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The interpretive program is a major aspect of Nez Perce National Historical Park. The park story is complex and challenging. Interpreting the story for visitors is vital to the success of the park, because most of the park's widely scattered sites relate to each other historically rather than visually or geographically. Indeed, the park's creators acknowledged that most of these sites and wayside signs did not possess intrinsic national significance. It was only when they were considered as a whole that the historical sites in Nez Perce country accrued national significance. Therefore, the interpretive program has been responsible for making each site achieve a level of national significance by virtue of its association with the other sites in the park. The park administration's interpretive function carries most of the responsibility for making the park's "string of pearls" cohere.

The conceptual framework for the park's interpretive program was developed through three key planning documents: the feasibility report of 1963, the master plan of 1968, and the interpretive prospectus of 1970. These documents outlined the goals of the program as well as the physical development of the park that the NPS would need to undertake in order to accomplish its goals. This chapter begins with a discussion of that conceptual framework. It then looks at the various components of the interpretive program as it actually developed. Finally, it considers some of the problems that are peculiar to interpretation in this partnership park.

Planning the Interpretive Program

Park planning began with an analysis of visitor use trends. Tourism in Idaho was increasing at a rapid rate in the 1960s. Armour Research Foundation's report projected that the number of tourists passing through Nez Perce country would grow from 593,000 in 1963 to 822,000 in 1970 on the way to 989,000 in 1975. [215] NPS planners were more cautious in their projections, pointing out that the major "tourist paths" between eastern population centers and destination parks in the Pacific Northwest crossed the state of Idaho via Interstate 80 and Interstate 90. These highways carried four times the volume of traffic on U.S. 95 and twelve times the volume on U.S. 12, the two traffic corridors that traverse the park. It seemed to NPS planners that the park would primarily attract local day-use. Therefore, the planners believed that consideration of the amount of population within a two-hour radius of Nez Perce mattered most. They noted that Idaho was one of the last remaining states still classified as rural by the U.S. Bureau of Census. Rather than suggesting ways to "capture" a certain percentage of out-of-state traffic so that these travelers would spend money in the local economy, NPS planning teams focused on the needs of the local day-user first, the weekend vacationer second, and the long distance traveler last. [216]

The Park Service's emphasis on the day-user had important implications for the interpretive program. Whereas the Armour Research Foundation envisioned a main visitor center that would present an overview of Nez Perce country and entice the visitor to spend an extra day or two exploring the various historical sites, the Park Service wanted to make each park site meaningful on its own merits and representative of the larger complex. Park planners were mindful that this would not be a destination park. "Since there are many other interesting day-use activities readily available in and around the Nez Perce county [sic]," the master plan stated, "the historical park will be placed in a position of competing for the visitor's time." [217]

After identifying the probable visitor use pattern, the planners turned to the more difficult question of what the national historical park was about. The concept of Nez Perce country was central. The Nez Perce Development Advisory Committee, the Armour Research Foundation, the NPS feasibility study team, and finally Congress itself used this term to define the park's scope and meaning. The term was deliberately vague, giving the Park Service some room for interpretation. [218]

Historian Erwin Thompson suggested that Nez Perce country comprised "great and varied scenery" as well as "the story of two cultures in close contact." He considered the history of the Nez Perce people to be "a continuous thread that must be woven throughout the length and breadth of the tapestry," yet the history of white settlement, which had so altered the land and the native culture, "must also receive emphasis." [219] Thompson allowed that the park story would be a complex and challenging one to interpret, and he envisioned a main visitor center with exhibits that would tie it together.

The study team for the master plan hewed closely to Congress's statement on the purpose of the park:

The Nez Perce National Historical Park protects and provides interpretation for various component sites relative to the early Nez Perce country of Idaho, the Lewis and Clark expedition through the area, the fur trade, missionaries, gold mining and logging, and the Nez Perce war of 1877, as they depict the role of the Nez Perce country in the westward expansion of the Nation. [220]

The master plan did, however, prioritize these various historical themes as of primary or secondary importance. The primary theme would embrace early Nez Perce culture; the tribe's first contact with the American explorers, Lewis and Clark; the Christian missionaries and their influence on the Nez Perce culture; and the War of 1877. The secondary theme would address the effects of American expansion on the native people and the land. Evident here was an effort to sharpen the focus, develop a central plot line with a consistent point of view, in order to make the park story comprehensible to the day-user.

The authors of the park's first Interpretive Prospectus (1970) took this further. "This is essentially the story of a people — a people and the land," they wrote. Wherever possible, the story elements should be presented from the Nez Perce point of view. The mining frontier, for example, should be considered primarily in terms of the pressure that it placed on the Nez Perce homeland and resources. Explorers, traders, miners, settlers, and soldiers would be kept in the wings while the Nez Perce were given center stage. These non-Indian groups would appear, "but only in relationship to the Nez Perce and their activities and life values on this land." [221]

Finally, after identifying probable visitor use and defining the park story, the Park Service tied the interpretive program into the development plan for the park. Arguably, the unusual land ownership pattern of Nez Perce National Historical Park posed an even greater challenge to interpreters than its complex story. Without a contiguous land base to work with, the Park Service had virtually no influence over how visitors would circulate around the far-flung park. Ideally, the interpretive prospectus stated, the NPS would direct all visitors to a main visitor center at Spalding and expect them to "fan out from there" (essentially the same visitor circulation pattern that the Armour Research Foundation had envisioned). Realistically, however, the NPS had to prepare for receiving the visitor at each site or several sites in whatever order the visitor chose. The most it could do would be to develop three "major entry points" at Spalding, East Kamiah, and White Bird Battlefield. [222] Consequently, the interpretive prospectus called for visitor centers at these locations with each one orienting the visitor to the whole park as well as a particular theme. At White Bird the theme would be the War of 1877, at East Kamiah it would be Nez Perce traditions, and at Spalding the visitor center would introduce the over-arching theme of Nez Perce cultural change from prehistory to the present.

The park's land ownership pattern posed another challenge to interpretation. Although it was Congress's intent that the Park Service serve as the lead agency for interpreting the park story, this could not be accomplished without the cooperation of a multitude of landowners. [223] On-site interpretation of the 19 cooperative sites required consent and in some cases a commitment of resources from the landowners. Most of the cooperative sites already had historical markers that had been developed by the State Highway Department. It would take many years to bring on-site interpretation of these sites up to national park standards. Signalling the fact that these sites would receive lesser priority, the Interpretive Prospectus commented simply, "It would be nice to be able to influence the design, placement, and texts of the State markers." [224]

Eventually it became apparent that the cooperative sites would provide the greatest challenge for park interpretation. At each site interpretation had to accomplish two things: reveal the historical significance that was intrinsic in the site, and provoke the visitor to think about how that site related to the broader park story. In many cases, nothing was left of a site but the memory as recorded in a state historical marker. As the park's creators freely admitted, many of the sites did not possess national significance on their own merits; it was only by bringing them into association with one another (through interpretation) that they acquired national significance. In other words, the creators of Nez Perce National Historical Park intended this unique park to be more than the sum of its parts. It was about historical ideas and the character of a region as much as it was about physical objects and specific geographical locations. In order to be a success, the park had to reveal each site's significance in relation to the whole park. Failing that, the Park Service would then be in the errant position of guiding visitors to 21 separate sites that did not have national significance.

Implementation of the Interpretive Program

One yardstick that the NPS uses for measuring the success of its interpretive programs is to count "visitor contacts." Visitor contacts are defined as face-to-face encounters between visitors and NPS personnel. These range from guided walks to casual contacts made by roving interpreters to over-the-counter greetings inside visitor centers. NPS officials believe that a high ratio of visitor contacts to total visitation generally indicates a high level of visitor interest in the park story, or an especially active interpretive program, or both. In its early years, Nez Perce National Historical Park exhibited a relatively low ratio of visitor contacts to total visitation. Park managers believed this reflected a low level of visitor interest in the park story as some eighty percent of visitors came to the park merely to enjoy the picnic area. [225]

To stimulate more interest in the park's historical resources, park managers sought to put their interpreters where visitor use was most concentrated. Superintendent Robert Burns established a makeshift visitor center in the Watson's Store at Spalding as well as "contact stations" in the Spalding picnic area and the Canoe Camp site. He assigned his two seasonal rangers to the Spalding and Canoe Camp units. When Superintendent Jack Williams replaced Burns, he apparently discontinued the contact station at Canoe Camp, assigning a roving interpreter to the picnic area during June, July, and August instead. In the summer of 1971, Williams closed the contact station and walk-through exhibit inside the Watson's Store when the number of visitors dwindled to less than 200 in four weeks. He concluded that the building required signing in order to make its status as an exhibit clear to the public. [226]

Williams' most significant innovation was the development of a temporary visitor center in the former Blue Lantern Motel. The eight-unit motel building became government property on January 1, 1969. In its first year of operation as park headquarters, the structure provided administrative office space for four permanent employees as well as a public information-orientation room where visitors could inspect wall maps and obtain the free park brochure. In 1971, the Park Service renovated the building by removing several interior walls and expanding the visitor center area into two former offices. When completed, the interim visitor center featured six exhibits, a four-minute audio-visual program, and an information counter. [227]

In the absence of a permanent visitor center, park interpreters spent much time outside and afield. During the 1970s, one member of the interpretive staff provided "living history" demonstrations on the fur trapping era by dressing in the garb of a mountain man and occupying a mock camp near the boom grounds. Interpreters also gave guided history walks around the Spalding unit and offered history and environmental education presentations to area schools. [228] With the completion of the visitor center, interpreters frequently provided guided tours of the exhibits. [229]

The addition of the modern Spalding Visitor Center in June 1983 probably constitutes the most important turning point in the development of the park interpretive program. After many months of frustration that attended the final preparation of the exhibits (rearranging the exhibit cases, rewriting many of the display captions, improving the glass fittings and track lighting), park staff were pleased to get the visitor center opened. For the first time the park was able to display many intriguing artifacts that had been in storage. The public response to the visitor center was generally very favorable. The character of visitation began to change, with fewer people using the picnic area and more people contemplating the Nez Perce heritage. Many long distance travelers now stopped at the visitor center on their way through the region. Even if they stayed an average of only twenty minutes, it was evident to park staff that the visitor center exhibits tended to captivate them. [230]

While contact stations, roving interpreters, and the temporary visitor center at the former Blue Lantern Motel yielded a significant number of visitor contacts in the park's early years, undoubtedly the most successful aspect of the interpretive program, prior to the opening of the permanent visitor center, consisted of "cultural demonstrations" by members of the Nez Perce Tribe. [231] In 1967, Superintendent Burns proposed that the NPS employ Nez Perces to demonstrate their cultural arts. The Park Service developed the idea in part to satisfy the desire to create park jobs for members of the Nez Perce Tribe. Burns worked with Education Specialist Joseph T. Williams of the BIA to implement a cooperative program between the NPS and the BIA's Northern Idaho Agency. [232] Specifically, Burns proposed to employ Mrs. Ida Blackeagle and Mrs. Viola Morris of Lapwai, Idaho as "cultural demonstrators," the first such position in the civil service. [233] Blackeagle was one of a few Nez Perce women who had revived the art of cornhusk weaving. Morris was one of the only Nez Perces left who still tanned buckskin the traditional way.

Blackeagle and Morris began demonstrating their arts in 1967, attracting some 1,500 to 2,000 onlookers each summer season. In the summer of 1969, the two women accompanied Park Historian Earl Harris to the Idaho State Fair in Boise, where some 12,000 people paused at their booth to watch them practice their arts. [234]

Superintendent Williams was as enthusiastic as his predecessor about the cultural demonstrations. While Blackeagle and Morris became the mainstays of the program, Williams recruited other Nez Perce tribal members to participate in traditional costumed dances, audience participation dances, drumming, singing, artifact and handicraft displays, food preparation exhibits, gaming exhibitions, and tepee raising. Williams obtained two $45,000 grants in the summers of 1971 and 1972 from the Clearwater Economic Development Association with which to pay the cultural demonstrators' wages. In the first summer, the cultural demonstrators performed on ten consecutive Sunday afternoons in July and August. Williams contracted with the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NPTEC) to hire the participants and coordinate the program. [235] NPTEC member Richard Ellenwood was the principal organizer.

The Sunday afternoon programs received such excellent publicity by local newspapers and television stations that they began to draw crowds of up to 4,000 people in a day. For the superintendent, enthusiasm about the success of the venture began to yield to concern about the effects of such concentrated use on the resources in this historic area. As paved parking lots became jammed, visitors parked their cars on the adjoining fields of dry grass where there was a high risk of soil compaction and brushfire. [236]

Nevertheless, the cultural demonstrations were good for public relations. For the first time, large numbers of non-Indian visitors were perceiving the validity of the park's interpretive theme. Nez Perce tribal members, for their part, could see that the Park Service was accomplishing something even if it did not yet have a permanent visitor center. Perhaps most importantly, many tribal members were inspired to learn in their adult years some of the cultural arts that their parents and grandparents had been taught in their youth. In this way, the national historical park actually assisted in the preservation of Nez Perce culture. [237]

The large cultural demonstrations grew sporadic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nez Perce performers began to find an alternative outlet for their cultural arts in Indian powwows, which became increasingly common throughout the region. Some followed the "powwow circuit" during the summer and were unavailable to perform in the park. What events there were drew fewer visitors, as many Lewiston-area residents began to take the cultural demonstrations for granted or showed declining interest. Some park officials even construed the decline in non-Indian attendance as a sign of white backlash against the tribe for its numerous court claims relating to tribal fishing and hunting rights. [238]

In 1984, Superintendent Whittaker sought to revive interest in the cultural demonstrations by consolidating them into one six-hour affair called Cultural Day. The first annual Cultural Day was held Saturday, August 25, 1984, and drew more than 800 visitors, many of whom came to see the new visitor center. [239] The second annual event, held on Saturday, August 24, 1985, featured approximately 35 demonstrators who demonstrated or discussed various cultural arts from beadwork, leatherwork, and cornhusk weaving to language, food preservation, children's games, singing, dancing, and tepee raising. Co-sponsored by the Nez Perce Tribe, the event attracted more than 1,000 visitors. Pleased with its success, Whittaker explained to the regional director, "The day accomplishes many things. It enhances the visitor experience, assists in preserving the culture, improves Park knowledge of the history, culture, and traditions of the Nez Perce People, and encourages community involvement." [240] Thus, the Cultural Day became a regular feature of the park's interpretive program.

Another interpretive program that invited cooperation between the park staff and the Nez Perce Tribe was the "Nez Perce Lyceum." Harkening back to the nineteenth century lyceum movement, which aimed to bring expert speakers on the arts and sciences to town and village audiences, the Nez Perce Lyceum consisted of a series of presentations on Nez Perce history and culture. The presentations were held in the visitor center auditorium over a period of weeks in the spring or fall. Presentations included tribal member Ron Pinkham speaking on "Oral Traditions of the Nez Perce Tribe," tribal member Jesse Greene speaking on "Nez Perce Fishing and Fishing Rights," traditional story-telling by Herman Reuben and Allen Moody, and talks by non-Nez Perce historians, archaeologists, and geologists. In recent years the Lyceum has reached farther afield to include presentations on the Makah Cultural and Research Center on the Washington coast and traditional tribal fishing on the Columbia by a member of the Yakima Nation. [241]

The park hosted a unique event, the twentieth-century Nez Perce artists exhibition, in 1991. Titled "Sapatq'ayn," the artists exhibition featured works of art and a guest lecture series by four nationally-known Native American artists. The Nez Perce Longhouse Society contributed a blessing for the opening and a seven drum ceremony for the closing. The park administration secured more than $20,000 in private donations to help with the cost of the program, and many people, including park staff, contributed volunteer time to the effort. Superintendent Frank Walker justified the exhibition in his annual report, "While this may seem like an unusual thing for a park to do, Nez Perce is a unique cultural park and this type of activity was very appropriate." Sapatq'ayn was worthwhile, Walker stated, because it encouraged preservation of Nez Perce art and tradition, developed new partnerships, and improved the Park Service's image. Many Nez Perces expressed pride in the exhibition and commented that the park was "coming out of the closet." [242]

Beginning in 1991, the park received funds from the Parks as Classrooms Program with which to develop a packet of educational materials on the Nez Perce people to supplement the social studies curriculum in area schools. As interest in the program burgeoned, the park also sponsored workshops for teachers for college credit at Lewis-Clark State College. [243]

The park administration also established some self-guided interpretive programs. The first such program was the auto tour of the park, based on the booklet "Your Guide to Nez Perce National Historical Park." [244] Visitors could also take a self-guided walk around the Spalding unit and learn about the park from the interpretive signs. In 1977 the NPS added a self-guided auto tour of the White Bird Battlefield. Motorists could start at the top of White Bird Hill and take old U.S. 95 down to the town of White Bird, making numbered stops that correlated with numbered passages in a guide booklet. Finally, the interpretive exhibit at Heart of the Monster included an audio display featuring the voice of tribal member Angus Wilson, who described the Nez Perce legend relating to the monster and the coyote.

The park administration helped launch the Nez Perce Park Cooperative Association at the end of 1968. Founding officers included Jack Williams, Earl Harris, Richard Halfmoon, Marcus Ware, and Ted Little. Like other national park cooperative associations, the purpose of this organization was to publish and distribute park-related literature and raise funds through sales of books, pamphlets, postcards, and souvenirs. It obtained tax-exempt status in September 1969 and gradually increased its revenue to the point of being able to make yearly financial contributions to the park, mostly for library acquisitions. [245] Later, the Nez Perce Park Cooperative Association merged with the Northwest Interpretive Association (NWIA), whose interpretive and visitor service programs covered all the national park areas together with various Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sites in the Pacific Northwest. The NWIA offered a variety of publications pertaining to Nez Perce National Historical Park. [246]

The cooperative association's sales department soon began featuring Nez Perce arts and crafts. Beaded coin purses, hand bags, key chain holders, and moccasins, as well as various items of jewelry, sold well to park visitors. Sales of Nez Perce arts and crafts grew to almost $3,000 in 1981, more than $9,000 in 1986, and more than $15,000 in 1995. [247] This was of some importance to the Nez Perce Tribe, whose original proposals for tourism development in the early 1960s had emphasized the need to promote sales of these items for the benefit of tribal members.

Problems in the Interpretive Program

With the interpretive program carrying much of the burden of making the Nez Perce National Historical Park idea a success, it was not surprising that park interpreters often found themselves making difficult philosophical choices. They were interpreting the culture of a people whose living members still practiced many of the cultural arts being interpreted and whose own sense of the past still bore many traces of an oral rather than a written tradition. They were interpreting a war which still burned in the hearts of the defeated side's descendants. For all these reasons, park staff members found it unusually difficult to trust their own authority to interpret the park. Superintendent Walker observed in 1992,

The interpretive staff at Nez Perce realizes almost daily that we are dealing with some complex, emotionally charged issues here, with very real people involved. We often question what we're doing — does anybody really care, how much should we care, and just what should we be doing? There is a certain intangible toll that it takes — but there are also some very real rewards.

Park interpreters also had to cope with preconceptions about their racial and tribal identity. Non-Indian members of the interpretive staff had to deal with the local sentiment that they were holding jobs which ideally belonged to the Nez Perces. Would not park visitors prefer to learn about Nez Perce history and culture from Nez Perce Indians? As one tribal leader bluntly expressed it, no one wants to find Mexican cooks at a Chinese restaurant. In this respect Nez Perce members of the interpretive staff had an advantage over their non-Nez Perce fellow employees. But they too felt humbled, bound as they were by tribal custom to defer to the elders of the tribe on matters of Nez Perce history and culture. [248]

Park staff also contended, at least initially, with a dearth of information. Early planning documents for Nez Perce National Historical Park stressed that much historical research needed to be done before many of the park sites could be interpreted judiciously. Scholarly books on the Nez Perce people and the War of 1877 were fairly scarce when the park was established. Alvin Josephy's The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest was published in 1965. The standard work on Nez Perce culture was still Francis Haines' The Nez Perces: Tribesmen of the Columbia Plateau (1955). The Park Service began to address the need for a good military history of the War of 1877 by contributing funds to a study by Merrill D. Beale resulting in the book, "I Will Fight No More Forever": Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War (1963). Yet many of the park sites still lacked reliable historical data. Even Beale's military history contained only sketchy details on the Battle of White Bird, for example. The NPS addressed this gap when it assigned John Dishon McDermott of the Park Service's Division of History, Washington, D.C., to produce a history of the Battle of White Bird. [249]

Even with this exhaustive study completed, it became evident in the course of preparing exhibits for the White Bird Battlefield interpretive shelter that no history of the battle could be definitive. NPTEC objected to the Park Service's interpretation of how the battle started, and adopted a resolution advancing its own interpretation of events. The NPS's Division of Exhibits at Harpers Ferry Center reviewed the tribal resolution and found NPTEC's interpretation to be at variance with historical sources (specifically McDermott's Forlorn Hope and L.V. McWhorter's Yellow Wolf, His Own Story [1948]). By way of compromise, it devised a new panel with the label "How Did it Begin? Two Historical Views." The final texts, jointly approved by NPTEC and the NPS, read as follows:

View 1

Some Nez Perce say that the Battle of White Bird Canyon was an ambush — skillfully planned and executed by the warriors. The Indians concealed themselves behind the two small hills visible in the valley below you. When the horse soldiers reached the hills, the Nez Perce launched a deadly attack from both sides.

View 2

According to many written histories, the Nez Perce chiefs sent out a peace party to meet the soldiers under a flag of truce. But the peace offer was refused when a volunteer militiaman who was accompanying the Army fired two quick shots at the Indian delegation. From that moment, both sides were committed to a fight. [250]

It could be argued that by offering clashing historical interpretations, the NPS provided the park visitor with a richer park experience. Superintendent Whittaker, for example, took guidance from the idea that interpretation should never avoid controversial issues nor expect to please all park visitors, but should tell the whole story from multiple points of view if necessary. [251] Yet there were countervailing pressures to focus the story and to emphasize, perhaps even exaggerate, the Nez Perce perspective. [252] "In order to achieve [the park] goals, it seems appropriate, wherever possible, to deal with the story elements from the Nez Perce point of view," the Interpretive Prospectus directed. [253] However, Whittaker objected when an early draft of the script for the park's film, written by a Native American, struck her as unduly harsh toward white Americans. She rejected the script. [254]

Interpreters also questioned the Park Service's role in displaying Nez Perce material culture and cultural arts. They did not want to overstep the bounds of preservation by meddling with the process of acculturation. The specter of Indians performing traditional ceremonies for tourist dollars rather than for their own sense of self was troubling. The park's interpretive specialist, Mardi Butt, cautioned that the NPS must guard against "creating culture." [255] As a result of frequent staff discussions on the subject, the park continually made adjustments in its interpretive program. Cultural demonstrators, for example, who were once requested to wear traditional dress and produce certain items were later encouraged to dress as they pleased and work on whatever items they desired. [256]

On the other hand, park staff agreed that the park's existence was now a part of Nez Perce history and acculturation. Indeed, the tribe's partnership with the NPS had been agreed to by the Nez Perce Tribe, and who was to say that the idea of Nez Perce National Historical Park was not a part of their own cultural evolution? The issue was to what extent the NPS should curtail its preservationist mandate in order to avoid intruding on Nez Perce culture. This was a delicate issue.

Some NPS officials envisioned the park taking a strong lead in cultural preservation. Superintendent Williams encouraged the park's cultural demonstrators, Ida Blackeagle and Viola Morris, to teach their arts to other tribal members. He was pleased, on visiting Nez Perce country many years later, to observe the high quality of Nez Perce beadwork and leatherwork for sale in the area and he believed, proudly, that the park had had something to do with it. [257] Similarly, the interpretive prospectus of 1970 suggested that Nez Perce children might come to the visitor center on school-sponsored field trips to learn from cultural demonstrators, practice making traditional arts and crafts, and listen to Nez Perce storytellers. This became a popular activity, and NPS staff (both Indian and non-Indian) were often requested to present tribal educational programs. A Nez Perce children's "Story Time" at the visitor center would heighten the children's appreciation of their heritage, the interpretive prospectus stated. [258]

In short, the preservationist goals of the park presented the staff with a conundrum. The concept of bringing a variety of tribal arts and oral traditions partially under the Park Service's aegis for preservation seemed to some park staff like an appropriate outgrowth of the partnership idea, while others found it disturbing. This aspect of the relationship between the Park Service and the Nez Perce people is not unique within the National Park System, but it is unusual and complex. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of an administrative history to give this relationship the intensive study that it deserves.

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Last Updated: 01-Jun-2000