In 1977, Yosemite National Park employees Jay Johnson and Les James had an unusual request: They wanted their employer to rebuild the homes that park staff had destroyed eight years prior. This was more than a pitch for employee housing. Johnson and James are Miwuk, and their ancestors inhabited the Yosemite Valley—or the Ahwahnee Valley, as it was originally known—for thousands of years. Even after Yosemite was designated a national park in 1890, about 15 families continued living in their homes on the land.
The small village housed mostly Miwuk and Paiute Native Americans who also worked in the park. Their homes were seen as employee lodging, so the Park Service allowed the buildings to remain. But as the majority of Native residents stopped working for the park or its concessionaires, Yosemite staff decided to raze the village in 1969, forcing people out of their ancestral homes. “During that time, we had no voice. We were just individuals, and we were always afraid of what the government could do to us,” says James, 83. “They could fire us or throw us out for any kind of reason, and we were always afraid of that.”
A year after the village was leveled, some of the local Miwuk founded the American Indian Council of Mariposa County. (The Southern Sierra band of Miwuks, descendants of Yosemite’s original inhabitants, lacks federal recognition.) In 1977, with the council’s backing, James and Johnson requested their village be returned. “Since that time, we’ve been working on it,” James says.
After decades of negotiations, a breakthrough was made this summer. An agreement struck with the park guarantees Southern Sierra Miwuks greater access to their homeland and to cultural practices that were upended almost 170 years ago.
The first white settlers to enter Yosemite Valley were led in 1851 by a gold-rush merchant named James Savage. During a conflict between Native Americans and miners, Savage’s trading post was attacked, and he led a group of men into the Valley for revenge, hanging some members of the Ahwahneechee Tribe, one of four Native groups in the Miwuk family, and shooting a chief’s son in the back. After Savage’s attack, most of the Ahwahneechee ended up on a reservation in the San Joaquin Valley, although a small band remained in Yosemite.
It was into this vacuum that famed naturalist John Muir emerged. He, too, had little care for the indigenous population. While waxing poetic about the Valley’s ecology and geology, Muir found its residents “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.”
Muir’s people-free preservation ideal eventually became national park policy. And as America’s greatest idea caught on, the National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs would together separate Native Americans from landscapes they cherished. As 19th-century Oglala Sioux luminary Black Elk noted, the agencies “made little islands for us and other little islands for the [animals]” with the simultaneous establishment of reservations and national parks.
The narrative put forth by the Park Service has always been one of Native acquiescence, though in reality, historian Philip Burnham writes, that was far from the truth. For instance, the Ute Mountain Utes didn’t willingly swap reservation land to expand Mesa Verde National Park in 1911. Rather, the feds threatened to withhold appropriations. The Blackfeet Tribe sold the western portion of its reservation, which would later be added to Glacier National Park, to the United States in 1895 only after a severe winter had starved many of its members.
“The idea that these parks were ‘gifted’ by Indians or other owners, a myth born in the era of later philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller, was anything but true for Native people,” Burnham wrote in an email.
While Native Americans were being forced off the land in national parks across the country, in Yosemite, James’ and Johnson’s ancestors remained—even becoming integral pieces of the Yosemite economy. From the park’s earliest days, the small band of local Native Americans served as laborers and attractions. The park held annual Indian Field Days, during which park administrators would dress locals in Plains Indian regalia to perform before tourists. A replica village was built in the park, but Miwuk people still had to ask permission to use it.
For decades, Johnson, James, and other Miwuk members had been negotiating the return of their village, always running into problems with politics or leadership change. The first agreement was struck in 2008, but that plan was derailed when then-superintendent Don Neubacher said the indigenous construction methods would pose a liability. Then, this June, the Miwuk gained a powerful ally. Michael Reynolds became the park’s new superintendent. Shortly after arriving in his post, Reynolds signed a 30-year agreement that would allow the local American Indian Council of Mariposa County to build and use a wahhoga, the Miwuk word for village. A roundhouse is scheduled to be completed in 2019, and multiple umachas—lodges sheathed in cedar bark—will be built as well. The buildings will be constructed using traditional methods and materials and will serve as a focal point for Native American cultural and religious ceremonies.
Announcing the latest agreement, Reynolds, who grew up near Yosemite, struck a reparative tone. “I, along with many, often struggle to find a better and more complete understanding of the difficulties that our people have caused to the lives and cultures of the Native peoples of this land,” he said in a video of the event posted by the Fresno Bee. “Perhaps today we are restarting this conversation.”
Though nobody will live in the wahhoga, the agreement is nonetheless a watershed moment in the park’s relationship with local Native Americans, who have long sought to reestablish their cultural and subsistence connection with the park. The wahhoga could also function as an example for other NPS units, nearly all of which were created following forcible or coerced removal of the Native population. “Our ancestors used to live there, and we always felt that what was available to our ancestors should’ve been available to us,” James says.
James, who chairs the Wahhoga Committee, sees this as one more step toward indigenous tribes reconnecting with their ancestral homeland. Next on the docket, he plans to start programs that teach Native youth about traditional plant and animal harvesting. As James says, “This is about our survival.”