Yosemite National Park is a modern-day celebrity whose natural beauty grants oohs and aahs, but much like human celebrities, us average individuals need to keep their power and influence in check.
Having nearly 5 million visitors in a single year, this place of reserved and protected land conveniently makes mention throughout the park in visitor centers, gift shops, stores, restaurants, hotels and even kiosks for all to understand the park’s natural history of development, along with the historical American legislature that went into the seemingly valorous creation of the land, which only deepens the narrative that the land must be governed to protect it.
If you’re even in the slightest degree familiar with this tale, you know the keywords are: glaciers, John Muir, Ice Age, Sequoias and rivers. But a crucial and, truthfully, the most elaborate part of this almost fairy-tale story that the park unmistakably makes an effort to hide is the violent eviction of the Indigenous Yosemite Peoples from their native land.
This process, of course, did not happen as purely as Yosemite’s history would have liked.
A(nother) Forgotten War of History
Before continuing, there are some material and details about this war (more accurately, a massacre) that some may find upsetting, like myself.
The Mariposa Indian War of 1850-1851 is considered the final blow to the native Yosemite Natives’ short, but undoubtedly, honorable fight against the predominantly white settlers who were traveling towards the California High Sierra Mountains in search of gold during the, ironically, well known California Gold Rush, a time in history in which capital gains led the way for American foreigners in their colonized “frontier” lands.
During this brief time in history, the process of evicting the Yosemite Native people was mostly influenced and led by a commander of the federally funded California militia, L.H. Bunnell, whose methods for eviction of the Native Chowchilla Tribe were, unsurprisingly, barbaric, given the United States’ ethos and the current time-period.
An example of this barbarism is demonstrated in the armed militia destroying the Native Peoples’ food source and crops, intentionally weakening the Tribal community, ending in prolonged death for many human lives, including the Chief of Chowchilla, who served as a source of leadership and an important representative of their entire community.
Along with this and more violent acts of removal, the slaughter of almost the whole Tribe, and especially after the death of their Chief, ended any chance of diplomacy to occur, resulting in the United States Government’s goal of colonization via depopulation to continue in their favor without consequences.
Predictably, this resulted in the surrendering of the Yosemite Native people, starting one of many familiar tales in history in which the remaining Native People were forced to relocate to their designated, still-standing, Indian reservation in June of 1851.
Outside the park, this new way of life for the Native Yosemite Peoples living in confinement, quite understandably, created a joyless atmosphere for the once prosperous community, with their livelihood of mountains, meadows, abundant food and water granted to them by the California High Sierra Mountains being stripped away and falsely substituted for an enclosed plot of land in California’s Central Valley.
This humiliating result for the Indigenous Yosemite People of living in an enclosure manufactured by their colonizers could not have been a bigger contrast with their poetically respectful style of residing within the land, only emphasizing the severe loss of their once thriving social and economic conditions.
On top of this, the land itself, which was mostly governed by nature itself, could not have seen a bigger contrast from living with the respectful Indigenous residents, to the now United States’ profitable compound that is solely governed and regulated by imperial power.
In 1890, a 1500 square mile plot of land had been established by the United States Congress to be the now well-known Yosemite National Park through the works of the American men, who are idealized within the conservation and art community; John Muir and Frederick Law Olmsted.
These men essentially fought and advocated for developing Yosemite National Park for the protection of art, and it is true because art is all-inclusive and is beneficial for the commonwealth, plus it advances civilization.
But, keeping in mind the entire article up to this point, this is absurdly paradoxical, due to the hidden part of history in creating the national park before the time of this given statement by Muir and Olmstead. Additionally, this claim that is deemed important in Yosemite National Park’s history does not hold true today, with the park being commodified and exclusive via it costing some legal tender to enter and enjoy.
Although the visible history of science and the legislative processes are important in fully appreciating the park and its natural resources, the censorship of this important socio-environmental history of evicting the Yosemite Native people to create today’s beloved park is pitiful, and further damages the already insecure relationship that all North American Indigenous Peoples have with the United States Government.
Now, Some Much Needed Optimism
Again, looking deeper into the origin and process following a conflict over a resource helps bring forth the truer meaning in history as to how and why certain establishments have come about. It is good, even scientific, to question; it is beneficial to scrutinize these powerful establishments, and us individuals have the means, more than ever, to do so.
The Yosemite Native people have been, and still are, an oppressed people whose story should not be one that needs to be searched for.
This is when those who care about this and similar atrocities, like you who have read this far, can learn from this mistake in U.S. history and progress our tax-funded National Parks by holding them accountable through simple acknowledgment of their injustice(s).
We pay for our National Parks, and in the same democratic fashion that we can vote politicians out of office, we can use this system to change our National Parks’ attitude towards something we care about, in this case, understanding and modeling after how the park’s Indigenous People historically cared for the land.
If you have a local National Park, and every U.S. resident does, that ignores or overlooks those who were Indigenous to the land, use your voice as an advocate for acknowledgment.
Voice your concern to the park’s rangers, to those who were sworn in to protect and care for the land as best they could.
Use this article as a reference for showing how important it is for a National Park to not gloss over something as significant as depopulation in their history.
The local Yurok Tribe currently works in close association with the National Park Service and the area’s Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce endangered species for the betterment of the park’s health and welfare. Along with this, the local Yurok and Tolowa Tribes regularly perform their traditional dance demonstrations in the park, one being a healing ceremony called the Brush Dance, and another called the Flower Dance, which is a celebration dance for the coming of age of a young woman; all of this allowing visitors to get a small glimpse at everyday life before government involvement.
Additionally, Yosemite National Park isn’t sitting around this issue due to their visitors becoming increasingly aware of the atrocities that took place on their conquered land. The park currently has a reconstructed Indian Village of Ahwahnee located behind their main Yosemite Museum. This reconstructed village is an immersive experience for visitors to get a first-hand tour of the Ahwahnee People’s culture, and it too is regularly used by members of the local American Indian community for special ceremonies and gatherings.
Actions such as these are great starting points for a resolution and it can only continue from here. Like nature, we can collaboratively work to purify our impurities to create a much more accurate appreciation of our country’s treasured National Parks and how they came to be, ultimately leading to a more culturally unified country, and restoring the planet celebrating practices for regenerative treatment of our great American National parks.
What are some other examples of hidden injustices within American History? How recent is too recent regarding these injustices? Let us know what you think! If you have more ideas on how we can reconcile this and other tragedies, comment below.
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