The last Native American village in Yosemite Valley was razed decades ago. Now they're bringing it back
Bill Tucker brushes pine needles from a flat, granite boulder to reveal bowl-shaped holes once used by his mother and grandmother to grind acorn and native plants for cooking.
“This is home!” the 78-year-old Miwuk and Paiute man says at the site of the last Native American village in Yosemite Valley, destroyed by the National Park Service by 1969.
Nearly half a century later, the village is being rebuilt.
The project is personal for native elders like Tucker who once lived there and have remained near Yosemite.
Yosemite’s native community dwindled after a battalion of state militia found the area in the mid-1800s while hunting for Native Americans believed to be living in a mountain stronghold. Villages were burned and Native Americans were shot, hung or captured. Others fled to the foothills or eastern Sierra. The Park Service today officially recognizes seven tribes as having traditional ties to Yosemite.
Some resilient Native Americans found a way to stay. Early on, many worked service jobs, weaved baskets and performed traditional dances for tourists. Their last village – 15 small cabins near the Camp 4 campground, just down the road from Yosemite Lodge – was gradually leveled as its inhabitants lost seasonal or full-time employment in the park. Those who retained employment were moved into housing elsewhere.
The only cabin to survive was the one belonging to Tucker’s family, which is now used as a wildlife management office. There are plans to move it back to the new site, called Wahhoga, which means “village” in Miwuk.
The rest of the vanished cabins will be replaced by umachas – traditional teepee-shaped houses covered with cedar bark. A roundhouse and sweat lodge will be the spiritual heart of the village and be used by a number of tribes. The project is led by a committee of the American Indian Council of Mariposa County/Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation.
“It’s our job as the National Park Service to preserve and protect the park and the resources,” Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman says, “but telling the cultural history and telling the story about the Native Americans is equally as important to our mission, not just for us as the National Park Service to tell the story, but to have the tribes and the tribal members tell the story. It’s unique and it’s exciting and it’s great for everybody.”
Tourists will be able to visit the village, although some spiritual ceremonies may only be open to tribal members.
The aim of the village, native elder Les James says: “To continue our culture and educate our youth, that’s really the bottom line. Educate our youth.”
It’s a dream for some of the elders to be able to come back and have ceremonies on the land. Some of them were born there. It was their last home before they were moved out.
Rollie Fillmore, construction supervisor for the Wahhoga village project
The next step: Finalizing an agreement with the Park Service that would allow construction to resume in the spring. Scott Carpenter, Yosemite’s program manager for cultural resources, says park officials are working “post haste” to get that done.
“The ‘green light’ is based on the previous development of engineering specifications for construction materials,” Carpenter says, “and the development of construction drawings that I understand the AICMC (American Indian Council of Mariposa County)/Wahhoga Committee now has complete.”
Tribal members working on the village remain optimistic.
“We hope to get it finalized soon,” says Bill Leonard, chairman of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation. “It would be a nice Christmas present.”
40 years and waiting
Engineering was a sticking point. Construction of the village had been underway for nearly two years when it was halted in spring 2011 by a new park superintendent, Don Neubacher, who cited safety concerns. The native community was asked to prove their traditional roundhouse met building codes.
Native American construction and engineering firms were hired to help with $25,000 provided by the Park Service. The rest of the work has been funded by donations to the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation. Construction resumed last year after plans were approved.
So far, a roundhouse foundation has been built and some logs and bark collected from Stanislaus National Forest, led by a volunteer construction crew from the Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians. Four foundation beams, known as medicine poles, that were previously installed had to be taken down, but some umachas remain standing.
The project dates back to 1977, when James and Jay Johnson, members of the American Indian Council of Mariposa County/Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation and now-retired Park Service employees, asked for their village back.
Promises were made to rebuild it, noted in official park policy, including Yosemite’s 1980 General Management Plan and the more recent Merced River Plan. The late Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, also supported the project.
I could sense a real passion and desire to get this thing done for the elders who are still around.
Brian Sewell of the Wenaha Group, project manager for the Wahhoga village project
“In recent years, I have become aware of an increasing number of incidents where the rights of American Indians have been abridged,” Kennedy wrote in a letter in 1978 to the director of the National Park Service, “where barriers have been raised preventing Indians from pursuing their traditional culture. These events prompted Senator (James) Abourezk and me to introduce legislation directing the federal government ‘to protect and preserve American Indian religious cultural rights and practices.’ In this regard, I hope you will give serious consideration to the proposal of the Yosemite Indians.”
An application first submitted by the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation to the federal government in the early 1980s to become a federally recognized tribe also remains under consideration.
“When you’re not federally recognized, you have to tiptoe because they can throw you out just like that,” James says of the village project. “So we took baby steps, if you will, and that’s how we got here.”
Thousands of years of history
The Wahhoga village would be different than the cluster of demonstration buildings located behind the Yosemite Museum that show traditional native structures.
The buildings at the museum were all “just kind of put there,” Gediman says. The Wahhoga site was used by Native Americans for generations.
Tucker points to deer tracks to make this point during a visit to the village on Nov. 30. The tracks run through the center of the footprint of the roundhouse. The deer chose to jump over a chain-link fence and the roundhouse perimeter lined with granite boulders instead of going around the enclosed area.
“It’s the same ol’ trail they been following for years and years and years,” Tucker says of the tracks. “So it’s still there. … They still follow the same path. So it’s just like us now. Where’s our bloodline at? We still got that bloodline. We’re still almost the same way, just following that.”
The roundhouse will be built without using any man-made materials. Oak pins will be used in the place of metal nails.
The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation has budgeted about $50,000 to build the roundhouse in 2018, says Tony Brochini, former tribal chairman and executive officer for the Wahhoga Committee. The nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy has donated $79,000 to help fund the project.
I always say that perseverance is our virtue.
Tony Brochini, a former tribal chairman of the American Indian Council of Mariposa County/Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation
Brian Sewell, project manager from the Wenaha Group, a construction management and owner’s representative firm based in Washington state, is proud of the roundhouse design.
“What’s been really neat is doing the structural analysis substantiated their oral history,” Sewell says, “that their buildings didn’t fall down without rebar or concrete. … It’s very unique, one of a kind.”
The tribe hopes to later build a more modern 4,100-square-foot community building on the village site that would include a kitchen, bathrooms and meeting room for educational services. That was estimated at $2.4 million in 2003, the last analysis. The tribe may raise funds to pay for it.
Before entering the village site recently, a group of workers waved lit bundles of sage around their bodies because the smoke is believed to clear bad energy.
Loose tobacco was handed out to sprinkle on the ground as an offering before approaching certain areas. It’s all an effort to keep Native American traditions alive and to treat the land as sacred. To that end, the native community has hosted spiritual walks, camps and dances for decades in Yosemite.
“It’s a different world when I come in here,” James says of Wahhoga. “I try to shut off the traffic out there and anything else. This is our sacred area – it will be. It’s special, very special to us.”
After Tucker digs out pine needles from some grinding holes, he beckons to a couple visitors to take a look.
“Each one tells a story,” Tucker says with a smile.
Archeological evidence shows Native Americans living in Yosemite Valley for at least 7,000 years.
“It’s huge,” Gediman says of the Wahhoga village being rebuilt. “It’s one of the most important stories to tell.”