Take me back to Ahwahnee…

A curious op-ed in the New York Times on Yosemite.  Curious because it points in one direction for a long time before suddenly screeching to a stop and pointing in another. Leveraging off of the controversy over Confederate monuments and the renaming of some park facilities necessary during a court battle, Daniel Duane recounts the sad history of Native Americans in California in general and in the valley in particular. Readers can anticipate the point: we should abandon the Euro-Americanisms in the park and revert to names the Ahwahneechee used. And indeed he reaches this point only to ask the descendants and relatives of these people what should be done.  Their recommendation: get federal recognition for the tribe and cut back on visitation. “Renaming, [Bill Leonard, a descendent of Tenaya] said, ‘is not going to make us feel any better or more important — the reality is, most of us could care less what they call things.'” You get the feeling Duane was asked by some reader or editor to ask these people about their views (much as interviews with descendants of slaves and Confederate generals have appeared) and was given an answer kind of at odds with the thrust of the piece, which he dutifully tacked on.

Anyways, the summary of injustices is fair (Duane fortunately relies on a couple of pretty appropriate references) and something more Americans should be aware of. But he kind of lets the Park Service off the hook, hiding their role behind more generic labels of “park officials” and the “federal government.” Pre-1906 management of the valley by the state allowed the Ahwahneechee to stay in the valley, and while demands for inappropriate “Indian” shows and their menial position in Yosemite Park contrasts with what should have been their place as owners and proprietors of the valley, they were at least considered to be legitimate residents of the place. Federal management systematically marginalized and removed Native Americans; that management was, after 1916, the Park Service. There is something disturbing to most Americans to realize that one of the most highly thought-of groups of public servants did in fact behave in such a manner. And it is distressing to many who call the national parks “America’s Greatest Idea” to recognize that it was prefaced on the exclusion of the peoples who had been there first.

Duane also takes a hesitant slap at John Muir, and here GG asks a bit of forgiveness for delving a bit deeper.  The literature on Muir is kind of funny.  The conservation community has practically canonized him, but others have attacked him for some pretty unpleasant descriptions of California Indians, including such gems as “In the wild gold years of 1849 and ’50, the Indian tribes along thus western Sierra foothills became alarmed at the sudden invasion of their acorn orchard and game fields by miners, and soon began to make war upon them, in their usual murdering, plundering style.” (The Yosemite) and, in probably the worst passage found in The Mountains of California:

Occasionally a good countenance may be seen among the Mono Indians, but these, the first specimens I had seen, were mostly ugly, and some of them altogether hideous. The dirt on their faces was fairly stratified, and seemed so ancient and so undisturbed it might almost possess a geological significance. The older faces were, moreover, strangely blurred and divided into sections by furrows that looked like the cleavage-joints of rocks, suggesting exposure on the mountains in a castaway condition for ages. Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.

[It appears that Duane misrepresents this passage when he writes ” The Indians he saw on trails struck him as filthy, and he was pretty sure nothing natural is ever filthy, so he concluded that they must not be natural.”–there are times Muir glories in being filthy; his condemnation of these Indians was not guilt through mere filth].

Muir clearly accepted the worldview of the community he grew up in, settlers he first worked for and the visitors he later entertained. In other passages, though, Muir admires the Native Americans for their abilities; frequently descriptions of plants are accompanied by Indian uses. Years later, in meeting the Tlingit in Alaska, Muir was far more accepting and complementary; one wonders how much of the difference was Muir’s growth and how much was the difference between seeing a people ravaged by war, famine, and dislocation and seeing a people still largely in control of their environment. An article on whether Muir is relevant today makes interesting reading.

The funny thing is, Muir very rarely wrote about Indians when traveling in the high country he so loved.  Outside of a history chapter in The Yosemite, Indian Canyon gets about as many mentions as any actual Indians. He describes all the plants and animals, the brooks and streams, the peaks and domes all without noting the humans who spent considerable time there.  While he probably excludes some fellow Euro-Americans, it is the absence of the Indians that utterly changes the tone of his reveries. When Duane jabs at Ansel Adams for omitting Indians from his photographs (Adams’s most lauded landscapes omit all people, not just Native Americans), he is perhaps not recognizing the impact of Muir’s omission on those who followed him, an omission that shaped the modern popular ideal of wilderness. (It is this omission that stands out for GG, and is a focus of a chapter in The Mountains that Remade America).

Frankly, Duane doesn’t go far enough.  By all means, add some signs noting the repeated mistreatments of the Ahwahneechee. Rename the valley and park Ahwahnee. You could try and see how Tis-sa-ack and To-to-kon oo-lah stand in for the park’s signature rock features, or maybe add the word “Massacre” to some appropriate feature (that would probably beat all the signs you could post for impact). A few mea culpas and apologies from the Park Service might be nice. But how about handing over the Grand Yosemite/Ahwahnee hotel to those descendants of the Ahwahneechee? That might even be better than federal recognition for the southern Miwok…perhaps they would rename it again, to the Grandly Arrogant EuroAmerican Hotel…


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