Local natives erased from Yosemite’s history
Some local members of the Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiute band are pretty angry. Just don’t say they’re “on the warpath.” It’s entirely possible you might find out why the Yosemite Paiutes scared the Miwoks enough to be called “Yosemite”—“the killers.”
David Andrews, chairman of the Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiute Community, is fed up with having his ancestors’ tribal affiliation questioned, and the opening last spring of the park visitors’ center, redesigned and renovated at a cost of $105 million, only intensified that resentment.
“If you go to Yosemite and look at the markers, it’s all Miwok this, Miwok that,” said Andrews, referring to the native people who first sprang from several areas of what would become the Sacramento Valley and other parts of Northern California. He maintains “the Paiutes were already there” when the Miwoks showed up as scouts and workers for Yosemite’s first white settlers in the early 1850s.
More than bragging rights are at stake. Descendants of those deemed the original people of a region play roles, from ceremonial to financial, when development encroaches on what’s considered sacred lands. Andrews claims Yosemite park officials are purposely overlooking the Paiutes to ensure park objectives win the blessing of the Miwoks, some of whom the park already employs.
To help build his case, Andrews points to the exhibit at the visitors’ center that begins with the Miwok creation myth but is illustrated with photos of Paiute people. That misleads park visitors into assuming all the native people they see in the displays are Miwoks, said Andrews. “None of the Paiute people are identified as Paiutes, and they make up most of the people in the photos.”
The Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiutes’ understanding of Yosemite is based not only on their ancestors’ oral history, Andrews said, but also on the earliest available accounts of incursions by white settlers into the park. The first documented meeting of whites and natives occurred, both the Paiutes and park historians agree, when the Mariposa Battalion, a militia under the command of Major John D. Savage, entered the Yosemite Valley in March of 1851. Savage’s militia was seeking retribution against the valley’s native people for raids made on area mining settlements. From there, the stories diverge.
According to Andrews, the Miwoks were guides, workers and in-laws of Savage’s, and they were reluctant to enter the valley because of their fear of the Yosemite Paiutes who lived there. “The name ‘Yosemite’ comes from the Miwoks who were with Savage,” Andrews said. He said that the Miwoks called the valley’s Paiutes “the killers.” “Now, if the Miwoks were the first people in the park area, why did they have another name for the people who lived there?” he asked.
According to Andrews, the earliest histories of the area were written by L.H. Bunnell, a miner who was with Savage’s militia. The Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiute group trace the origins of the Ahwahnichi, the original inhabitants of the park, to Chief Tenaya’s group, which is the band documented in Bunnell’s accounts. Andrews said that Tenaya led a band of Paiutes that migrated from the Mono Lake area and settled in villages in Yosemite.
However, the official park history takes the position that the Ahwahnichi in Yosemite were part of the Southern Sierra Miwoks, and that Mono Lake Paiutes were a transient trading group.
Scott Gediman, the chief of the media and external relations for Yosemite National Park, said that the park is aware of the criticisms made by Andrews and other Paiutes with traditional ties to Yosemite. “We’re not saying that he’s wrong,” Gediman told SN&R. “We’re using the best information we have available, and we’ll correct any errors as better information becomes available.” Gediman also noted that the understanding of native life in Yosemite is “an evolving body of knowledge and we’re continually learning new things as studies continue. But at this time, we stand behind what we’ve presented.”
Those presentations, on historical markers and in a new American Indian cultural exhibit at the park’s Valley Visitors Center, are exactly what Andrews wants changed. He pointed to a number of specific photos of the exhibit, including people like Captain Sam, Tom Hutchings, and famed basket-maker Carrie Bethel, as examples of people who are either misidentified as Miwok or do not have their tribal affiliations mentioned at all. “There are government documents,” Andrews said, “where these people identified themselves as Paiutes.” He has photocopies of those documents, which he said are easily accessible and should have been consulted by the park’s exhibit designers.
Andrews considers the identification of Tom Hutchings as a Miwok one of the worst examples. That is done in the same photo of Hutchings used in two different parts of the exhibit. But a copy of the photo Andrews obtained from the park’s own library identifies Hutchings not as a Miwok but as a “Mono,” or Mono Lake Paiute.
The most egregious affront, according to Andrews, is a photograph of his ancestor, Captain John, whose name and tribal affiliation are not even noted. “Captain John signed the 1891 petition to Congress” that demanded $1 million in gold as restitution for the loss of Yosemite, Andrews said. “He was among the Paiutes kicked out of Yosemite” in the early days of the national park, when claims about residence were being determined. Andrews told SN&R that, at that time, park officials told native residents that “in order to stay in the park, you had to dress up like an Indian for the tourists and perform for them, and our folks said, ‘See ya.’ But they weren’t that polite.”
The membership of the Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiute Community is made up of others like Andrews who can document that they are direct descendents of Paiutes who lived in Yosemite prior to the establishment of the park. The National Park Service has determined that the group has “informed party status,” which means that they do have significant ties to pre-park Yosemite.
The purpose of the community, which is made up of members who are already enrolled in other, federally recognized tribes—Andrews is a member of the Walker River Paiute Nation—is, he said, “to keep the traditions of the Yosemite people alive and to fight the people in the park that were trying to erase our past. For some reason, the park service seems to want to erase every Paiute from park history.”
Andrews has his suspicions about what those reasons might be. The park has a relationship with the American Indian Council of Mariposa County, also known as the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation (“Miwuk” is an alternative spelling of “Miwok”). According to Gediman, the Council is “a conglomeration of the affiliated tribes of Yosemite. There are seven tribes in the council.” Gediman said that none of the tribes are federally recognized, including the Southern Sierra Miwuks, although some are working on gaining recognition. “They have been pursuing federal recognition, but that does not preclude us from dealing with them in a government-to-government relationship.”
But Andrews is concerned that the current and former chairman of the Southern Sierra Miwuks are Yosemite National Park employees. “Having a relationship with the park helps them make a case for federal recognition, and the stronger they make their relationship, the better their case gets,” he said. He doesn’t think it’s an accident that “the people they are asking for identification of the photos are the same people who are trying to get federal recognition as Southern Sierra Miwuks, and they’re also former and current employees of the park.”
Furthermore, the American Indian Council of Mariposa County, because of its relationship with the park, which is codified in a memorandum of understanding, is paid substantial fees for work they do overseeing any ground-disturbing work that might unearth native remains or artifacts and consulting on Native American displays. A copy of official documents relating the Council’s consulting services, obtained by SN&R, indicates the Council received $87,000 in federal park funds for their services.
In addition to his concerns that financial incentive for the Miwoks to strengthen their tribe’s ties to the park, Andrews also has heavy criticism for the work of Craig D. Bates, who was the park’s official ethnologist for three decades. Andrews claims that Bates was married to a Miwok at one time and had no training as an ethnologist, anthropologist or archaeologist. Andrews says that Bates “attributed history of the natives there to Miwoks, his wife’s relatives, instead of to the Paiutes who did live there.”
Gediman noted that the Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiutes seem to “have a problem with Craig Bates.” Bates has retired from the park service, and SN&R was unable to reach him for comment. Gediman did not have information about his qualifications and training.
But Gediman insisted that the park has always made use of the best available information in constructing its exhibits and attributing artifacts. “As a government agency, it’s very difficult for us to take sides, he said. “We have to go on the best, most current and agreed-upon information in the academic community regarding tribal affiliations, who lived in Yosemite at which times, and the ethnicity of Chief Tenaya and so on.”
Park officials say they have no formal process for disputing information in its exhibits. But after their historic preservation officer met representatives from many Yosemite-area tribes last summer, Paiute identifications were added to several photos of people previously lacking tribal identification, including Carrie Bethel, a Paiute.
But Tom Hutchings is still identified as Miwok instead of Paiute. And Andrews’ Paiute ancestor, Captain John, is still anonymous at Yosemite.