Life in the Valley: American Indians of Yosemite

03 January 2014


One year ago I found myself in one of my favourite places in the world, scrambling around the monstrous peaks of Yosemite National Park, California, generally gawping in awe of the picturesque landscape that enriched my view. So it has been exciting to be reminded of the park and descendants of its first inhabitants whilst indexing some evocative photographs belonging to the Newberry Library’s Ayer Collection, featured within Adam Matthew’s forthcoming publication American Indian Histories and Cultures.

Today, Yosemite Valley is frequented by hoards of adventurous vacationers much like myself, absorbing all they can from this magnificent natural splendour, usually only for a few days at a time. But long before mass tourism, 4,000 years according to some, the valley was the sole preserve of the Ahwahnee, a group from the indigenous Miwok tribe. Disease all but wiped the Ahwahnee out and for some time the valley was deserted, only to be repopulated by a group drawn from a number of different Miwok tribes. This group became known by the surrounding tribes as the Yosemites, ‚Äúthose who kill‚ÄĚ.

American Indians gathered for annual 'Indian Field Days'

The discovery of Gold in the valley during the 1840s led to an influx of miners that jeopardised the stability of the Yosemites. A series of hostile exchanges ensued, forcing the miners to establish a battalion in 1851 to resist Yosemite raids, which eventually resulted in their subjugation, and acquisition of territory, women and sources of provision by the settlers. Control of the Yosemite Valley had certainly shifted away from the Yosemites as they were banished to a reservation near Fresno, allowed to return in 1855, since when they have lived civilly alongside the white settlers.

By the early decades of the twentieth century, the dynamic between Yosemites and white settlers had evolved once more. The commercial opportunities that Yosemite provided were well and truly exploited, and visitors‚Äô intrigue about them was capitalised on by the National Park Service when they instituted ‚ÄėIndian Field Days‚Äô, held annually between 1916 and 1929. These were essentially rodeo fairs where the park employees and local American Indians, dressed in headdresses, beads and buckskin, would compete in a series of contests including tugs of war, potato races as well as performing daring horseback endeavours. Reminiscent of the impact of mass tourism on indigenous peoples worldwide today, the American Indians of Yosemite would sell their handmade baskets and other crafts to the field day tourists, modified to fit the cultural stereotype tourists had of how American Indians behaved and dressed. Whilst these staged events expressed a slightly distorted impression of their way of life, there was a definite financial benefit for them and interest in their culture was fostered.

Glacier Point Mountain House overlooking Yosemite Valley three thousand feet below.

Although the Indian field days ceased in 1929, some of the crafts, like basket weaving, continued to thrive in the subsequent decade and to this day, as I discovered on my visit, one can come face to face with American Indian culture and practices in Yosemite National Park.

These photos and many more of the early visitors to Yosemite and other American Indian tribes feature in American Indian Histories and Cultures, due for publication later this year.

Images © The Newberry Library, Chicago. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

About the Author

Tom Derrick

I am the Senior Collections Analyst for academic publisher, Adam Matthew. My role enables me to contribute to all aspects of the project lifecycle, from collating customer feedback to editorial production. I was fortunate enough to work on the re-launch of one of our most successful resources, Empire Online and have been privileged to work on a variety of other projects including Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975.