Yosemite’s Indigenous Erasure, Past And Present

After experiencing the Creek Fire firsthand, photojournalist and writer Aditi Mayer looks at the past and present of Yosemite National Park to understand its historical brushes with Indigenous erasure, climate change denialism, and settler colonialism.

WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY ADITI MAYER

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I woke up to the scent of fire, and found Yosemite engulfed in smoke and raining ash. A sepia filter filled the sky over the meadows that were bright blue the day prior.

 

The night before, the Creek Fire had begun in the South of Yosemite in the Sierra National Forest. Currently, it continues to burn since its spark on September 4th; it now holds the spot as California’s 5th largest fire in the state’s recorded history, with over 300,000 acres burned. In fact, the five biggest fires on record in California have all occurred within the last two years.

 

But these fires are not simply nature on its course—they’re climate fires.

The Creek Fire, like many other fires ablaze on the West Coast, came about as a result of changes in land management practices, increased lightning, heatwaves, and vegetation dryness (also known as “fuel”)—all of which have been made significantly worse due to the ongoing climate catastrophe.

 

The day before ash consumed Yosemite, I spent the day in the park’s meadows—an ecological site that serves as a reminder of those that once stewarded the iconic landscape. Long before colonizers arrived, Yosemite’s Indigenous Ahwahneechee people maintained the meadows by periodically burning them—a practice known as cultural burning. This encouraged the growth of desirable plants, such as deer grass, which was used in basket making—a circular system that sustained its people’s cultures and economies.

Before the park was named Yosemite by settlers, the area had been called Ahwahnee by Indigenous people, meaning “big mouth”—referring to the towering embrace of Yosemite’s peaks around its valley floor.

 

Yosemite, on the other hand, translates to “those who kill”—a slur that was used by surrounding Miwok tribes who feared those who lived in Yosemite. When the Valley was eventually named by Lafayette Bunnell, a member of a battalion that violently displaced the Indigenous population, he wrote: “It would be better to give it an Indian name than to import a strange and inexpressive one; that the name of the tribe who had occupied it, would be more appropriate than any I had heard suggested that we give the valley the name of Yo-sem-i-ty, as it was suggestive, euphonious, and certainly American; that by so doing, the name of the tribe of Indians which we met leaving their homes in this valley, perhaps never to return, would be perpetuated.”

 

In many ways, the naming of the National Park reflects the ways settlers appropriated the idea of indigeneity, without actually centering its Native peoples—rewriting what it actually means to be “American”. White settlers like Bunnell who came to the Valley were keen to uproot the Native population, which he described as “very troublesome to the miners and settlers.”

 

In 1850, the California legislature passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians—a law which, for its benign name, instated state-sponsored violence against California’s Indigenous communities. For one, it outlawed intentional burning, or cultural burns—a key act in suppressing Indigenous stewardship over the land.

 

It also allowed any white person to declare Native Californians to be vagrants—a charge that would then sanction those Natives to be seized and sold at public auction, enabling those that purchased them to have their labor for four months without compensation.

Yosemite, now considered the crown jewel of the U.S. National Park roster, was born as a project of settler colonialism and white occupation. In 1851, James Savage, a prolific business man during the Gold Rush era, led a group of vigilantes to encroach on the grounds of the Ahwahneechee, using embers of campfires to set their wigwams ablaze.

 

Bunnell, in his record of the attack, wrote: “The whole transaction had been so quickly and recklessly done that the reserve under [John Boling and] Savage had no opportunity to participate in the assault, and but imperfectly witnessed the scattering of the terrified warriors… twenty-three were killed; the number of wounded was never known. Of the settlers, but one was really wounded, though several were scorched and bruised in the fight.”

 

Following this attack, then-California governor John McDougall believed that military force was necessary to maintain a stronghold over resistance from California’s Native peoples, and enlisted Savage as the Major of the Mariposa Battalion. The militia, authorized by the state, had the genocidal mission of “the war of extermination,” issued by California’s first governor Peter Burnett.

Another salient figure in the history of Yosemite is naturalist John Muir, often hailed as the father of the National Park System. Muir helped define Yosemite’s boundaries as a National Park, and is attributed for informing President Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to sign into existence five national parks and many national forests during his presidency. In 1892, he founded the Sierra Club, spearheading the modern U.S. conservation movement.

 

But there’s a darker side to Muir’s legacy and the romanticized understanding to America’s environmental movement, which he helped imbue. Muir’s musings on Yosemite and the larger Western frontier venerated the idea of “pure wilderness,” often an escape from man to refuge where “no marks of man” were visible. His writings were often predicated upon the absence of human life—however, his extensive travels were not without interaction with Indigenous people.

 

In his book The Mountains of California, Muir describes the Natives he sees as “ugly, and some of them altogether hideous,” with “no right place in the landscape,” and “was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” The reality of Muir’s racism, and its ripple effects on other early Sierra Club members and leaders that were vocal advocates for white supremacy continue to inform the Sierra Club today, leading the organization to actively center anti-racism in their work to rectify their problematic legacy.

 

Within a century, the erasure of Yosemite’s Indigenous populations and the construction of the pristine myth of the Western frontier fueled by Muir’s venerated writings contributed to creating false notions of white “discovery” and nativity to the land and a paternalistic understanding of preservation.

 

Similar to the frameworks established in the 1850s that banned cultural burns, Muir was an advocate for fire suppression in Yosemite, preaching that fire should be absolutely excluded from all Sierra forests in order to “save” Yosemite’s landscapes. In 2010, research from Pennsylvania State University found that a century of fire suppression in Yosemite Valley led to decline of biodiversity, a 20% reduction in tree populations, and increasing vulnerability to catastrophic fires prior to expulsion of its Indigenous community.

As fires continue to consume multiple geographies, from California to Australia, Indigenous land management techniques are routinely cited as key methods to maintain the landscape’s vulnerability to extreme wildfires.

 

But these calls for ancient knowledge are met with a generation of leaders who continue to deny the realities of climate decline. Notorious climate deniers like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil are known for their track record of harm against Indigenous communities—whether allowing the construction of oil pipelines through Indigenous territories or deforestation in the Amazon—while perpetuating nativist ideas on who belongs on the land in the first place.

 

History has shown us countless incidents of settler colonialism that justified conquest by undermining Indigenous knowledge and humanity and European understandings of codified written property rights.

 

In Australia, European colonizers established the false notion of terra nullius, or “nobody’s land,” to describe the Australian landscape as deserted and uncultivated—despite the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait people belonged to the land for over 65,000 years.

 

In Europe, the Catholic Church established the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave justification to Christian European explorers to assume control over the lands held by Indigenous nations on the basis that the “discoverer” could label the inhabitant’s way of living inadequate according to arbitrary European standards. This created a way of legitimizing dispossession of Indigenous communities worldwide, while reinforcing a culture of supremacy on both racial, cultural, and religious terms for European Christians.

 

And while the beliefs and practices of Indigenous cultures should never be reduced to a monolith, a key pillar of many Indigenous cultures has been the idea that one cannot “own” land.

 

As written in Indian Country Magazine, Indigenous thought understands that “people belong to the land, rather than the land belonging to the people… From the Indigenous point of view, treaties memorialized agreements with colonists over the shared use of the land. Indians were willing to share land with the colonists for farming, hunting, and gathering, but did not expect the colonists to assume exclusive rights to all of the land or extinguish Indian territorial rights.”

 

Displaced indigenous knowledge and worldviews, drowned out by settler colonialists, created the forces by which extractive and exploitative systems and leaders have continued to reign supreme today—despite the damning impacts on our ecology on both an environmental and social level. If country officials want to know anything about managing fire, or how to live with it, they’ll need to realize the future was written a long time ago.

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