The forgotten history of violent displacement that helped create the U.S. national parks

CALIFORNIA – Hiking fanatics for years have flocked to Yosemite National Park in Northern California to scale its mountains, see its views and camp underneath the stars. All because those who came before took care of it and kept it as free from urbanization as possible.

The Ahwahneechee, the indigenous peoples of the area, discovered the famous Yosemite Valley long before European explorers did in the mid-1800s. The Ahwahneechee found the summer conditions and plentiful food sources of the valley favourable and settled in and amongst the peaks.

Yosemite Valley is a glacial valley in Yosemite National Park in the western Sierra Nevada mountains. The valley is about 13 kilometres long and up to 1.6 kilometres deep, surrounded by high granite summits such as Half Dome and El Capitan (the famous default desktop image on newer Mac OS operating systems), and densely forested with pines. The valley is drained by the Merced River and a multitude of streams and waterfalls including Tenaya, Illilouette, Yosemite and Bridalveil Creeks. Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America, and is a big attraction especially in the spring when the water flow is at its peak.

The valley is renowned for its natural beauty, and is widely regarded as the centrepiece of Yosemite National Park, attracting visitors from around the world.

Geological forces compressed and lifted the area, forming the mountain ranges. Glaciers and the accompanying ice fields then cut and scoured the rocks, fashioning Yosemite’s unique granite landscapes. After the melt, the flowing waters would become the rivers, streams, and waterfalls that are now associated with Yosemite. The eventual melt of the glaciers gave way for the many bears, deer and other familiar Yosemite wildlife to move into the region.

What’s often left unmentioned when it comes to the grandeur of the United States of America’s national parks is that, for the parks to become the protected lands of public imagination, their prior inhabitants — like the Ahwahneechee people and the rural poor — had to be evicted.

“It’s not something that gets talked about nearly as often as it should,” said a tour guide at the Yosemite National Park visitor centre’s indigenous museum last month. “Yosemite Valley became a national park around 1890, and later on, around 1960, the park wanted to extend its territory. But the Ahwahneechee still had a small, yet flourishing, community in the way.”

To make room for the park extension, the park officials we not open to much compromise and discussion with the Ahwahneechee as to how they would receive the land. Years earlier, during the Gold Rush, there had been a lot of fighting and disagreeing with each side.

“To get the land the park needed, they razed, or burned down the village,” said the park tour guide. “After burning down the village, the Ahwahneechee needed a place to go, so the park offered that the remaining Ahwahneechee could only remain in the park if they became employees of the park, or trained to become park rangers.”

The tour guide said that there are still workers or park rangers form the Ahwahneechee who witnessed the burning down of their village. But didn’t mention what happened to those few Ahwahneechee that didn’t want to leave, or become employees.

Before the violent displacement, the Ahwahneechee lived in camps at the bottom of the valley, in huts known as o-chum. These small homes were built with pine for the framing and supports, using the wood in a teepee like structure with a diameter of about 12 feet. They hunted everything from deer and large game, to worms and small insects. The animals provided much more than just food. They provided skins for clothing, sinew for tying, and other purposes. The whole animal was used in some way, with little waste. Whatever meat that was not eaten right away was hung to dry and made into jerky for later consumption.

The Ahwahneechee performed controlled burns in the Yosemite Valley that controlled undergrowth and maintained the oak population. Acorns were a central staple to their diet. Black oak acorns provided almost 60 per cent of their diet. These acorns were taken out of a big stash and lain on a slab of rock in the sun to dry. Once they had dried, the acorns were ground up in small holes atop big granite slabs also called a mortar and pestle. Once they had been sufficiently ground down to a fine powder, the acorn “flour” was put into a shallow depression at the edge of the river.

Today, the Ahwahneechee’s story is starting to be told and brought out of the dark, alongside many other indigenous cultures in Canada and around the world with similar stories. There is a museum Yosemite National Park today that celebrates the life and culture of the Ahwahneechee, and a small walkable tour that shows how and where they lived.

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