Before the world knew of Yosemite’s towering granite walls and majestic waterfalls, a small group of Native Americans knew it as home.
The first humans arrived in the area as long as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. Around the same time, the last of the mighty glaciers of the Tioga Glaciation retreated deep into the mountains.
The earliest people did not inhabit Yosemite Valley year-round. It would have been a challenging place to live, not long after the powerful glaciers and the rivers fed by their meltwater had scoured the Valley. Instead, the first permanent residents of the Valley appeared approximately 3,500 years ago. This marked the beginning of a unique culture that eventually became the Southern Sierra Miwok, whose descendants still live in the foothills and often gather in Yosemite to continue their heritage.
The earliest residents hunted with spears and atlatls—a spear-throwing device. A hunter using an atlatl was a highly skilled individual and essential member of the group. A skillfully wielded atlatl provided meat, which meant protein and vital nutrients for the tribe. But to throw a spear incorrectly was to put one’s family and extended family at risk, and potentially lose a prized obsidian spear point.
The tribe hunted a variety of game, including deer, bears, and smaller mammals. They gathered wild edibles that included berries, pine nuts, mushrooms, and insects. The staple of their diet was the acorn of Quercus kelloggii, the black oak tree. They stored the acorns in a granary called a chuck-ah. When they were ready to eat the acorns, they used pounding stones to pulverize the seeds into flour. These stones can still be seen in Yosemite Valley today. Once the acorns were turned into flour, the flour was then soaked to remove tannins. The talented cooks then turned the mush into porridge or tasty flatbread.
The tribes of the Valley often started controlled fires. They were wise stewards of this land and knew the importance of fire in maintaining a healthy and balanced ecosystem. The brushfires also had the benefit of killing undergrowth that competed with the black oaks. In turn, there were more oaks to produce the all-important acorn. We must be thankful to Yosemite’s first people whenever we sit in one of the Valley’s meadows today. They created and maintained many of these peaceful spaces.
They lived in cedar bark dwellings similar in shape to a tipi, but more permanent. These homes were called u-ma-cha. The u-ma-cha were waterproof, warm, repelled insects, and could house an entire family.
The older generations passed on their traditions and creation stories to the younger generations. Many special ceremonies took place in large roundhouses and sweat lodges. Over the millennia, the groups living in the Valley changed. With these changes, cultures merged and evolved.
The last group of Miwok to live in Yosemite Valley called it “Ahwahnee.” Ahwahnee translates to “place of the gaping mouth.” Being residents of Ahwahnee, they called themselves the “Ahwahneechee,” meaning “dwellers in Ahwahnee.”
The Ahwahneechee traded with their neighbors, including the Paiutes and Monos. From the Paiutes of the eastern Sierra, they obtained the precious obsidian stone necessary for crafting spear and arrow points. From the Mono, they received the delicious ka-cha-vee, an insect pupa that tasted like shrimp, and caterpillars that live in the Jeffrey Pines of the Sierra high country.
Unfortunately, the Ahwahneechee’s time in the Valley was not destined to last. The discovery of gold in the western foothills brought a massive influx of European prospectors to their doorstep. The miners’ search for the yellow rock was feverish and consuming. In the process, they damaged the ecosystems that sustained the local tribes, including the Ahwahneechee. Thousands of Miwok who lived in the western foothills of the Sierra and the Central Valley either died from starvation or directly at the hands of the miners. When the Miwok tried to resist, the newcomers responded with brutality.
The Gold Rush and the Tragedy of California’s Native Americans
1851 saw the formation of the Mariposa Battalion, led by James Savage. Savage was a miner and store owner who had trading posts and gold mines in the foothills, including a trading post downriver from Yosemite and another on the Fresno River. After a group of Native Americans raided his store in 1850, he rallied for the formation of a retaliatory militia. With approval from the state of California, the militia set off to find Yosemite Valley and capture the Ahwahneechee.
The militia had never contacted the Ahwahneechee before. When they launched their assault on the Native American villages in the Valley, they failed to ask what name the Native Americans had given this place. Instead, the militia members adopted a name that other Miwok tribes used for this band, “Yohhe’meti” or “Yos-s-e’meti.” Yosemite is translated as “those who kill.” Their neighbors gave the name Yosemite to the Ahwahneechee because they were known to have outcasts and renegades from other tribes amongst their numbers.
The militia captured the Ahwahneechee and burned their villages over the course of several days. They then marched Chief Tenaya, the leader of the Ahwahneechee, and his people to a reservation on the Fresno River in the Central Valley, far from their ancient home.
To add insult to injury, the Mariposa Battalion named the Valley “Yosemite,” and they mistranslated it as “grizzly bear.” They also appropriated the Chief’s name to rename several features near where they captured the tribe: Tenaya Lake, Tenaya Peak, and Tenaya Canyon. Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the Battalion, recounted:
“I called [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 [Tenaya], because it was upon the shores of the lake that we had found his people, who would never return to it to live, his countenance fell and he at once left our group and joined his own family circle. His countenance as he left us indicated that he thought the naming of the lake no equivalent for the loss of his territory.”
Her Name Was Tis-sa-ack
The story of the Ahwahneechee, the California tribes, and all of the Native Americans is a tragedy. While the Ahwahneechee are no longer residents of Yosemite, they did leave us with a few creation stories. One of these is the legend of how Half Dome came to be. The Ahwahneechee, however, knew the mountain as “Tis-sa-ack.”
This story takes place long before the Ahwahneechee came to live in the Valley. A woman and her husband left the river plains of the Central Valley to visit their relatives across the high mountains to the east. It would be a long journey. The woman’s name was Tis-sa-ack, and the man was Nangas. The trip was tiring as they slogged up the dry and hot foothills. Finally, they arrived in the Valley exhausted and thirsty.
At the head of the Valley, they came to a broad section of the river known as Ah-wei-ya. Today we call it Mirror Lake.
Tis-sa-ack placed her baby in its basket and drank from the lake. She was so thirsty that she filled her cup again and again. No amount of water could quench her thirst. When Nangas arrived a short moment later to drink from the lake, not a drop remained.
Anger consumed Nangas. He rushed to his wife and started to beat her. Tis-sa-ack tried to flee from the onslaught, but she could not escape his blows. Tears filled her eyes. Finally, in great pain, she faced her husband and threw her basket at him.
This violence angered the Great Spirit. Nangas and Tis-sa-ack had disturbed the peace of the Valley. In retaliation, the Great Spirit turned them to stone. Their abandoned baby became the Royal Arches, and it stands above today’s Majestic Hotel (originally named the Ahwahnee Hotel). Nangas became Washington Column and North Dome. The thrown basket became Basket Dome, which sits aside North Dome. Tis-sa-ack became Half Dome. The dark streaks running down its Northwest Face are her tears of pain. And thus Tis-sa-ack is often translated to “face of young woman stained with tears.”
Visitors to Yosemite Valley can learn more about the story of Yosemite’s Native Americans by visiting the Indian Museum, where members of the Southern Sierra Miwok (some of whom are descendants of the Ahwahneechee) and National Park Service park rangers keep the stories alive.
The legend of Tis-sa-ack raises important questions. Why do we call it Half Dome and not Tis-sa-ack? Who gets to decide such things as the name of a mountain on a map? And how does the name of a mountain impact the native cultures that have cherished it and the collective memories and stories that endure?