By: Char Miller
This Land is Their Land
However polite its title, the 1891 “Petition to the Senators and Representatives of the Congress of the United States in the Behalf of the Remnants of the former Tribes of the Yosemite Indians Praying for Aid and Assistance” was anything but deferential.
The petition offered a blunt critique of the mostly white gold miners’ brutal incursion into the Yosemite region in the late 1840s. It sharply criticized the state-sanctioned violence that California unleashed in the 1850s on the Indigenous Peoples of the Central Sierra, and astutely recognized that elite tourists—and the amenities they required to cushion their late nineteenth-century visits to the rugged landscape—were also responsible for cultural disruption and physical dispossession. The petition reported that the previous half century of exploitation had turned the Ahwahneechii and Monos into “poorly-clad paupers and unwelcome guests, silently the objects of curiosity or contemptuous pity to the throngs of strangers who yearly gather in this our own land and heritage.”
The once fertile and sustaining terrain of the Indigenous Peoples had been torn apart. “The gradual destruction of its trees, the occupancy of every foot of its territory by bands of grazing horses and cattle, the decimation of the fish in the river, the destruction of every means of support for ourselves and families by the rapacious acts of the whites,” the petition asserted, would “shortly result in the total exclusion of the remaining remnants of our tribes from this our beloved valley, which has been ours from time beyond our faintest traditions, and which we still claim.”
The US government did not respond to this appeal for the return of tribal lands, an ironclad treaty that would protect their inheritance, and compensation for their decades of immiseration. Instead, the petition, to which forty-three survivors put their names, was buried in the 1891 report of Yosemite’s acting park superintendent. But its bureaucratic fate doesn’t diminish its importance any more than does the probability that the document’s amanuensis was a Euro-American fluent in English. The oral histories on which the petition depends, and, as anthropologist Ed Castillo observed, the “incredible description” it provides of the “political, military, and ecological factors driving remaining tribesmen from their valley could only have as their source local Indigenous knowledge.”
That knowledge, and the distressing catalogue of injustices it contains, is an important challenge to settler-colonial justifications for How the West Was Won. One facet of that master narrative also centers on Yosemite National Park— by the time tourists arrived to “ooh and ahhh” over its iconic waterfalls, steep granite walls, and staggering vistas, the land was “empty.” Its putative emptiness, the result of violent dispossession, set the stage for an early twentieth-century, decade-long battle over whether to build a dam in the park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. The dam’s proponents, including federal officials, as well as citizens and politicians in San Francisco eager to secure a stable water supply following the 1906 earthquake that devastated the city, believed the dam was emblematic of Progressive Era reforms that provided essential—and publicly owned—resources to a rapidly urbanizing society. John Muir, founding president of the Sierra Club, which was established in 1892, was among those who pushed back, arguing that the dam’s construction would inundate the wild Hetch Hetchy Valley. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” he thundered, “as well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated for the heart of man.”
What neither side admitted was that their respective arguments depended on a shared perception that no one lived in the Hetch Hetchy Valley., or that no had ever lived there. Its emptiness enabled dam supporters to conclude that the site would be perfect for a reservoir. Its emptiness, for those like Muir who pressed for the valley’s preservation, was a mark of its higher utility as pristine nature. Yet to conceive of this valley as devoid of people required two forms of erasure of the history and contemporary status of the Indigenous Peoples that their 1891 petition so brilliantly evoked.
The first erasure occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, when California and the United States governments sanctioned the violent expulsion of the Indigenous Peoples from the Sierras’s flanking valleys and foothills. The dispossession of the Miwok, Paiute, Shoshone, and others from their ancestral territories was an act of genocide, historian Benjamin Madley argues in American Genocide. He writes: the “pressures of demographics (the migration of hundreds of thousands of immigrants), economics (the largest gold rush in US history), and profound racial hatred all made the genocide possible, it took sustained political will—at both the federal and state levels—to create the laws, policies, and well-funded killing machine that carried it out and ensured its continuation over decades.”
The second erasure is embedded in the continuing and disquieting silence over the interlocking connection between the ruthless uprooting of Indigenous Peoples from the Yosemite region, the establishment of the national park, and the subsequent Hetch Hetchy controversy. Until that silence is broken, our understanding of the ongoing debate about the dam and reservoir will remain incomplete. This accounting is especially necessary because scholars and activists assert that the formative battle over the Hetch Hetchy dam marked the birth of the modern environmental movement in the United States. The assertion reveals a troubling and complicated story.
Muir was integral to each of these erasures. Consider his reflections that he jotted down in his journal after a hike up what he called Bloody Canyon in Mono County and then revised for publication in his book The Mountains of California 1894). Entering the pass, the “huge rocks began to close around in all their wild, mysterious impressiveness,” Muir wrote, “when suddenly, as I gazed eagerly about me, a drove of gray, hairy beings came into sight., lumbering toward with a kind of boneless, wallowing motion like bears.” Anxious about “so grim a company,” and suppressing his fears, he realized “that although hairy as bears and as crooked as summit pines, the strange creatures were sufficiently erect to belong to our own species.” He was hiking up a trail that the Mono and other Indigenous Peoples had worn smooth over the millennia, transiting between the Mono and Owens basins and Yosemite and the valleys below. His disdain for these men and women shows throughout his descriptions, such as, “the dirt on their faces was fairly stratified and seemed so ancient and so undisturbed it might almost possess a geological significance.” To Muir they belonged to a distant time, and befouled his wilderness. “Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.”
The larger settler-colonial culture adopted his perspective and, whether Indigenous Peoples were forced out of Yosemite by force of arms or the scratch of a pen, a key consequence was that this “empty” terrain was ripe for commercial exploitation. Tourism to the region, enabled by a growing cross-continental transportation grid, and the growth of San Francisco and Los Angeles, was fueled by artists and photographers who visited the region a decade or more before Muir’s arrival there in 1868. James Mason Hutchings, who hired Muir to work at his Yosemite hotel, was a relentless promoter. He drew a swelling number of artists, scientists, and tourists to make the arduous journey to the remote location through his publication of tour guides, lithographs, and magazine articles about Yosemite’s wonders and curiosities. Many of these visitors recounted their experiences in the rough and wild space, some published, others not. However manifest, these documents reinforced the cultural conversation about what they perceived to be Yosemite’s prime value—a beneficent refuge in an industrializing world, where you could escape civilization, and yet have its amenities.
The sanctuary status was one of the key arguments that Muir and others developed in the early twentieth century against the city of San Francisco and its political allies who laid claim to the Hetch Hetchy Valley inside what became Yosemite National Park. The thrust and counterthrust manifested in a series of congressional hearings, in the pages of many of the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers, and in oft angry speeches. The fierce debate testifies to the centrality of a valley that few Americans had ever visited. Even though San Francisco’s interests prevailed, and the O’Shaughnessy Dam and its steep-walled reservoir that funnels potable water to the Bay Area was built, the controversy continues to simmer. Beginning in the 1980s, an odd coalition of Republican state and national politicians and the Sierra Club and its allies periodically call into question San Francisco’s reliance on the reservoir and urge the federal government to tear down the dam and restore the long-submerged valley.
Yet any resolution of this enduring latest struggle to define the future of Hetch Hetchy, and by extension Yosemite, must start by prioritizing what hitherto has been ignored. Novelist, historian, and activist David Treuer writes, “America’s national parks comprise only a small fraction of the land stolen from Native Americans, but they loom large in the broader story of our dispossession.” His pithy conclusion—”the American West began with war but concluded with parks”—is mirrored in the Yosemite Indigenous Peoples’ claims asserted in the 1891 petition: “We say this valley was not given to us by our fathers for a day, or a year, but for all time.”
Copyright © 2022 by Char Miller
Publisher Reverberations Books Santa Cruz, CA
Imprint of Chin Music Press Seattle, WA
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Control Number: 2022935659