This year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary and as the National Park Foundation said, “the Centennial is more than a birthday. We want people everywhere to embrace the opportunities to explore, learn, be inspired or simply have fun in their 407 national parks….” UNP asked its authors to write about their favorite National Park to contribute to the #FindYourPark campaign on social media.
The following contribution is from Joy Porter, author of Native American Environmentalism: Land, Spirit, and the Idea of Wilderness (Nebraska, 2014), and Native American Freemasonry: Associationalism and Performance in America (Nebraska, 2011).
Explore Your National Park’s Indigenous History: Yosemite/ Yo-ham’-i-te
Most of us think of national parks as oases of peace and calm in a busy world. Parks seem changeless—places where we can relax, turn off our minds and forget about the conflict and competition that characterises modern life. Yet, if we look a little deeper and think about parks as historical spaces, they reveal themselves to be as full of stories as any other American landscape or built environment. Far from being “empty” spaces where the only developments are geological or biological, national parks teem with human narratives. Their histories reveal a fascinating, contested past with legacies too important to ignore.
An excellent place to start is Yosemite, one of the most beautiful places on earth.
When the landscape architect and conservationist Frederick Law Olmsted first came there in 1864, he called it a “wild park” because he felt it had been made just how man might have like it to have been without man’s intervention. In fact, glacial action and the work of indigenous peoples had created Yosemite’s almost level floor, gentle pools, broad meadows with deep grass, wildflowers, azalea, giant oak groves, pines, and its meandering riverbank lined with willows and colourful rocky outcrops. Yosemite oozed bird life, grizzly, and all kinds of wildlife, partly because indigenous Americans had carefully kept it a perfect environment for such flora and fauna to develop over generations.
Settlers named the valley Yosemite, taking their cue from a corruption of the Sierra Miwok word Yo-ham’-i-te. This described a band called the Ah-wah’-nee-ches who had a large village on the south side of the Merced River. They were excellent hunters of grizzly bear, known as Oo-hoo’-ma-te/O-ham’-i-te, thus their name. Far from being empty or devoid of human impact, Yosemite supported a large population—at least 36 sites in 1870. Some villages were lived in all year; some just from May to October; and some were geared exclusively to seasonal hunting and fishing. When the fifty-eight fur trappers and hunters who “discovered” Yosemite did so in the fall of 1833, they had been watched by Ahwahneeche who had been secretly trailing them.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that such a beautiful and abundant environment as Yosemite has been home to a large human population over time. After all, Yosemite’s isolation made it easy to defend and it was full of edible, fish, reptiles, insects, game, water, and edible plants—especially acorn, which, when shelled and dried, was a tasty staple. Subsistence living always means regular effort, but at Yosemite there is evidence that indigenous living was not hard. There was plenty of time for a rich ceremonial life carried out in two large, semi-subterranean assembly houses of about 40 feet in diameter. Yosemite peoples also carried out extensive political and cultural activities including dances and playing musical instruments. They drew upon a vast hinterland of stories as well as stories tied to specific places in Yosemite. We also know they played a game like lacrosse, gambled, and held a great annual mourning ceremony each September or October to connect with the dead. Each fall, they set fire to Yosemite’s dry grass so as to keep its meadows open and abundant.
Tenaya was a key voice within the generation of Ah-wah’-nee-ches that witnessed their land’s transition to National Park status. A leader within the biggest and most important village in the valley, he had a large ceremonial house beside a gigantic oak just below Yosemite Falls.35 He is on record several times reminding settlers that they did not need to name the remarkable landscape and geological features at Yosemite because they already had names—names with powerful cultural and spiritual significance. When, for example, as his people were being displaced, it was suggested to Tenaya that a deep blue lake be named after him he said, “It already has a name. We call it Py-we’-ack.”
Despite the National Park Service’s recent efforts to expand awareness of such earlier histories, much is left to do. It is a difficult process, but one that many Americans are ready to address at this confident point in national development.
Today, we need not remain blinkered to the fact that after 1850, the most conventionally beautiful and sacred parts of what had been known as “Indian country,” including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mt. Rainier, Crater Lake, Mesa Verde, Olympic, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain, were all designated “wilderness” and their Indian peoples removed. This was an era of immense Indian suffering, a time when the Park Service carried on processes of removal and Indian cultural erosion begun in the previous decades by the American army.
Reflecting with clear eyes on this past helps us to see that the reverence we have been taught to feel for National Park landscapes has a history all of its own, one intimately bound up with larger American impulses to exploit human and natural environments for profit. The more we understand the deep history of National Park lands, the better equipped we will be to make the mature choices needed to protect these and other spaces in the near future. As world population numbers balloon and global competition for resources exascerbates, learning how not to repeat the errors of the past has never been more important.