Like every parcel of land in the United States, Yosemite National Park is imbued with a complex history of both flourishing progress and incredible violence. This complexity is made obvious when we read the stories that reveal how these lands were appropriated by European hands. Unfortunately, these stories often go untold. The erasure of Native American history and—quite frankly—existence remains all too common.
When I hear the words “Yosemite National Park,” I am immediately taken to a display room of Ansel Adams photographs in my mind where images of Half Dome and meadows hang, seemingly untouched by humanity. Though beautiful, these photographs promote a problematic understanding that these spaces were unoccupied before European boots reached them. The romanticized concept of “untouched” wilderness is what drove white men across the United States to claim acres upon acres of open space, pursuing the “Great Frontier” in fulfillment of a “Manifest Destiny.” This fable of emptiness is what engendered a lethal sense of entitlement in colonizers. When it was discovered that humans already belonged to these “untouched” spaces, dehumanization justified the eradication of culture and life to make room.
In this series of pieces, I will attempt to provide context for Indigenous life and stories as they unfolded on the eventual land of government parks, thousands of years before that government came into existence. Together, we can return to these spaces with a more complete understanding of the land. Natural monuments like Half Dome will stand taller when we remember the lives of the people who once nurtured the lands below them.
Disclaimer: As a white woman who grew up with an over-simplified narrative of the National Park system, I am no expert in the history of Indigenous peoples who lived and continue to live on these lands. This is my retelling based on my own research. I hope to continue to learn and grow in my own understanding of these stories. If you have ties to the histories told in this series, please feel welcomed to comment and correct if you feel comfortable doing so. I, and the entire Passion Passport team, am here to learn and stand corrected when I fail to accurately tell the stories of other people.
If you have been to Yosemite before, you may recall the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite valley, which reflects the Natives’ name of the area. The Indigenous Miwuk people of this area called the valley “Ahwahnee” meaning “gaping mouth-like place,” and themselves, the Ahwahneechees. The Ahwahneechees are a southern Miwuk subgroup led by Chief Tenaya living in Yosemite Valley during the invasion by the Mariposa Battalion in 1851. In the late 1840’s to the early 1850’s, myths of gold tempted new settlers to try their luck in California. At this point, the “Manifest Destiny” was being pursued at full strength by Anglo-Americans, forcing Native Americans from all over the country further and further west. The first governor of California, Peter Hardeman Burnett, is recorded to have said to California’s new state legislature that
“a war of extermination would continue to be waged until the Indian race should become extinct, [and that it was] beyond the power or wisdom of men to avert the inevitable destiny.”
In other words, there was no acknowledgement of Indigenous rights to land and no proposal of peaceful (if still problematic) coexistence. Native Americans had been violently forced to seek refuge west until the Anglo-Americans reached the most western point of the continent. There was quite literally nowhere else to go. This was the context of the Mariposa Battalion’s mission to find (or rather, exile) the Ahwahneechees.
A man named James Savage ran a trading post on the Fresno River, along which gold miners gathered and passed on their routes. When three men managing Savage’s post were killed and goods were destroyed, James Savage convinced fellow miners and local officials that the Ahwahneechees were planning a second massive attack that would push out the miners from the Sierra. It was true that some Native peoples had committed violent acts to dissuade the miners from continuing to usurp Native land. Whether it was the Ahwahechees, my research does not make clear, but whoever committed these acts made the Ahwahneechee’s recipients of even greater retaliation.
Upon Savage’s warning, the Mariposa Battalion was formed—a state-sanctioned troop of white miners who invaded Yosemite valley on March 27th, 1851. As the story goes, the Battalion ruthlessly set fire to the Ahwahneechee settlement in the valley, captured Chief Tenaya and his people, and marched them into the San Joaquin Valley where a reservation was appointed to them.
Chief Tenaya was the son of an Ahwahneechee Chief, but had been born and raised among the Monos away from Yosemite valley. Desiring a return to the land of his ancestors, Chief Tenaya convinced relatives who had joined the Mono, Paiute, and neighboring tribes to join him in a re-habitation of the Yosemite valley. The gold rush threatened their newly reclaimed livelihood, and they suffered exponentially for it. The Ahwahneechees were cleared from their home of more than 4,000 years to make room for gold mining and agriculture. The only tribute offered to this tribe was the naming of Tenaya lake after the chief himself.
In his memoir, Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851 Which Led to That Event, Mariposa Battalion member Lafayette Bunnell writes,
“I called [Chief Tenaya] up to us, and told him that we had given his name to the lake and river. At first he seemed unable to comprehend our purpose, and pointing to the group of glistening peaks, near the head of the lake, said ‘It already has a name; we call it Py-we-ack.’ Upon my telling him that we had named it Ten-ie-ya, because it was upon the shores of the lake that we had found his people, who would never return it to live, his countenance fell and he at once left our group and joined his family circle. His countenance indicated that he thought the naming of the lake no equivalent for his loss of territory.”
The naming of Tenaya lake was merely a last mocking effort that only accentuated the depth of loss the Ahwahneechees were experiencing, having been violently driven from their home without even the names of their land honored by the Europeans. There was no known determination by the Battalion to understand the Ahwahneechee’s culture or way of life—only an objectifying curiosity which resulted in ignorant assumptions. By naming the lake after Tenaya, the Battalion disrespected the Awhahnechee’s custom of not naming natural landforms after humans. And when Tenaya passed, their custom of leaving the dead’s names unspoken was also blatantly dishonored.
In following years, the people led by Chief Tenaya made their way back to the Yosemite area, and descendants continued to live in the park under the National Park Service’s ownership, but the trials brought by the first Europeans to enter Ahwahnee never left the Ahwahneechees.
In the 1990’s, the National Park Service worked with the American Indian Council of Mariposa County to construct a ceremonial roundhouse that could be used by Miwuk peoples. This minor effort was hopefully the beginning of greater reverence and appreciation for the Miwuk peoples who were so violently exiled from their home and deserve to play a leading role in the stewardship of Ahwahnee. To build on any restorative and reparative efforts, we must make an effort every day to unlearn, listen, and take action that supports Indigenous peoples all over the United States—and the world—who have suffered from centuries of violence and exclusion.
Passion Passport recommends “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz as a starting point for anyone looking for a more complete understanding of this land and the people who first called it home, beyond what a history textbook may or may not provide.