The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation people were one of the original tribes of Yosemite National Park and surrounding areas of what is now the state of California. Archeological evidence shows Native Americans living in Yosemite Valley for 5,500 years, sustained by the natural resources provided by this unique environment. This secluded land also served as sanctuary, long protecting Native Americans from the advances of Spanish, Mexican, and American colonists. The California Gold Rush changed that forever. During and following the Gold Rush, the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation suffered from violent dispossession, relocation, and economic disadvantage in their ancestral homeland.
While their plight has been difficult, many Southern Sierra Miwuk still reside in Yosemite Mariposa County, and this extraordinary landscape continues to be the heart of their tradition, spirit and culture. Elements of Native American life from generations ago are still present today. Here are ways visitors can engage with Miwuk culture and history in current-day Yosemite National Park and Mariposa County. Michəksəsəə (welcome) to Miwuk culture!
Place-names like “Tutokanula” for El Capitan live on today across Yosemite National Park. Hetch Hetchy is derived from the Miwuk word “hatchhatchie”, which means “edible grasses”. One theory is that the name Wawona comes from a Miwuk word that represented the hoot of an owl, considered to be the guardian spirit of the giant sequoia trees. “Pohono” is the traditional Miwuk name for Bridalveil Fall, meaning “puffing wind”. And “Yosemite” is the Miwuk word for “those who are killers”, referring to the Ahwahneechee, a mixed tribe including Miwuk and Mono Paiute that lived in Yosemite Valley.
As you explore Yosemite Mariposa, look for pounding rocks, the granite mortar holes that the Miwuk used for preparing different kinds of foods including acorns.
Miwuk heritage and culture is celebrated at the Mariposa Museum and History Center located in downtown Mariposa. Founded in 1957, the museum houses an array of exhibits interpreting Native American life in Yosemite Mariposa, which includes the Mono, Paiute and Miwuk tribes. The native plant garden includes an umacha, the traditional teepee-shaped house covered with cedar bark. The museum’s compelling collection includes a large Indigenous basket collection, artifacts, and images. Take a look at the video below on the Mariposa Museum and History Center’s Native basket collection, which is just a portion of the museum’s collection.
Yosemite National Park’s signature archive, the Yosemite Museum is located on the north side of Yosemite Valley in the shadow of North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls. It offers interpretive displays on the cultural history of Yosemite’s native Miwok and Paiute people from 1850 to the present. Demonstrations of basket weaving, beadwork, and traditional games are presented.
Located behind the Yosemite Museum, the Indian Village of the Ahwahnee is a cluster of demonstration buildings that show traditional native structures including a ceremonial roundhouse, sweat lodge and Chief’s House.
The original reconstruction of the village dates back to the 1920’s. The sweathouse itself was constructed in the 1930’s. In the 1970’s the village was reconstructed in the spot that we know it in today. The roundhouse, which is the center of the Indian Village of the Ahwahnee, was built during the reconstruction in the 70’s and became the hub for celebrations of rich Native American history in Yosemite Valley. Take a walk with us through this hidden Yosemite Valley gem in the video below.
Wahhoga is the Miwuk word for village. The Yosemite Valley Wahhoga was the last indigenous village in Yosemite, occupied until 1969 when the park service removed the last of these homes. Located west of Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley near the Yosemite Lodge, Wahhoga will be reborn, as the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation will become one of two tribes permitted to use National Park Service land for traditional and cultural purposes. Umachas, a traditional roundhouse and a modern Indian cultural center are being traditionally re-built – many without any manufactured materials. For example, oak pins will be used in place of metal nails in the roundhouse, a method that has proven strong and reliable for millennia.
Miwuk is a compelling 2019 documentary on the Southern Sierra Miwuk Tribe, told through the eyes of people whose ancestors lived here in Mariposa County for thousands of years. The film, produced by veteran television editor Bill Lowe, tells the stories and traditions of seven Miwuk members growing up in Yosemite Mariposa, with inspiring accounts of strong traditions as well as heartbreaking adversities their people have endured. One of the story threads is the Miwuk campaign for federal recognition (see below).
Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation events include bear dances, spiritual walks and cultural camps in Yosemite Mariposa, along with powwows and fundraisers. Most are open to the public and wonderful ways to learn more and show respect for the Miwuk culture as they bring people together. Check the official Yosemite National Park calendar for future events.
The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation continues to petition for federal acknowledgment. The petition was first filed in 1982; public comment on the proposal is set to close on November 16, 2020. As a part of the Yosemite Gateway Partners, the Yosemite Mariposa Tourism Bureau wholeheartedly supports the petition for federal acknowledgement. For more information, see the official website of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation. Show your support by adding a comment or making a donation.
(Please note: Due to state and local restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact destinations mentioned in this story for current hours of operation.)
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