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Last Survivors of the Yosemite Indians

Ah-wah’-nee was the Indian meaning for "deep grassy valley, and so the glacier-cut, granite-walled, unique, lush valley was named by them way back the other side of yesterday. For centuries braves roamed the seven-mile long canyon hunting and fishing while their squaws pounded acorns into meal and, stoically, saw to their men’s comfort.

Wars and a black sickness interrupted and nearly destroyed their pastoral life and when, years afterwards, survivors drifted back to re-establish homes in Ah-wah-nee, white miners were encroaching on the Sierra Nevada. Ten-eye-ya was the chief of the new tribe which called itself "Yo-sem-ite," meaning "Grizzly bear." It was inevitable that the Yosemites and neighboring tribes should clash with the whites who took possession of their land, killed their game and cut their oak trees, thus eliminating their chief food, acorns. In retaliation the Indians raided, stole, and killed white invaders, but bows and arrows were no match for rifles.

These descendants of Yosemite Valley’s first inhabitants were reduced by killing, disease and reservation life to a band of last
survivors. This portion of this article gives a fragmentary history of the lives of Indian women in adapting to the whiteman’s tenure in their Ahwahnee.

In March of 1851, a punitive white battalion led by Major James D. Savage, entered Yosemite Valley in pursuit of marauding Indians. Although no braves were found to be captured, Savage and his men proceeded to discourage their return by burning their belongings, provisions, and u-ma-cha dwellings Lafayette H. Bunnell, a miner-member of the Mariposa Battalion, unearthed the only Indian who had not fled. An aged feeble squaw peered indifferently at him from the shelter of a huge rock at the base of North Dome, know by Indians as To-k-ya, "the basket". Bunnell replenished her fire, pitying the woman who had been left behind to die. Savage questioned her in her Indian dialect, but she did not have much to say to him. She would not even tell him her age.

In route to the Valley, the Battalion had met a large band of surrendering Indians, who were herded off toward a reservation.
Among them was Maria, a young granddaughter of Chief Tenaya, who was humiliated by surrender and exhausted from walking through deep snow. Three-quarters of a century later, she recalled that the Indians, in 1851, "Got no shirt—got no pontloon. Pretty near nothing on women pretty near (nothing) on men." She remembered Savage as "no good," a man who was unfair to Indians who mined for him, and whose "ketchum young girl" marriage to several Indian maids antagonized some of her people. She was bitter over Chief Tenaya’s treatment. "When white men fight him and get him, they tell him they give him money. He no want money. They tell him clothes. He no want clothes. They take him Mono reservation. He die." His death did not take place on a reservation, however.

A Mariposa asked to be taught Indian words, and had difficulty writing down Maria’s speech. Maria laughed, "You can no spell it? You no can spell what a bird sings."

In 1928 75 years after her capture, Maria LEBRADO revisited Yosemite Valley in Company with sympathetic naturalists. She was bent and grizzled, but physically strong and mentally alert. Her nostalgia for early life and Indian friends was eloquent. "Long, long time!" She was cheered at the sight of Yosemite Falls, calling it by its Indian name, "Chorlock, Chorlock no gone!" and Sentinel Rock inspired her reverence "Loya, Loya! Long time’go." Maria was delighted with most of the tribal exhibits in the (then) brand-new Yosemite Museum, and spent hours in the re-created Indian Village at its back shelling acorns, preparing native dishes, and sharing customs, traditions and lore with white friends who recorded her words and actions. Her death in April 1931, she was about one hundred, was a loss to friends, red and white.

During the Valley’s development by white pioneers, a group of Indians lived thee in rough camps. The men earned money by fishing, and breaking horses, Some women did laundry and maid work; others begged for money or food. Some married white men; others did not; either way half-breed children resulted. One white man traded a mule for a squaw, but the squaw left after three days, explaining, "I no stay, he no good."

KALPINE was requested to be a midwife for may white births. Indian MARY enjoyed answering condescending tourist questions with "Me no savee." Later, she would regale friends with a basic English recital of the tourist’s looks, manners and morals.

SALLY ANN DICK was a pretty, full-blooded Yosemite Indian, who married W. G. Stegman, a miner who had struck it rich. They lived in San Francisco where she had a carriage, beautiful clothes and plenty of money. None of that compensated for being away from the beauty and freedom of Yosemite Valley so she ran away one night, taking a modern vestige of civilizaton with her—a sewing machine. For years she was the only woman in the Valley to Own one and took it to sewing sessions with BRIDGET DEGMAN.

She made a poor wife to two other husbands, one Indian, one Italian, deserting the first one for long periods of time. "Johnny beat her and still she would not stay," LENA BROWN commented.

SALLY ANN " never had a retiring disposition; well-fortified by bad liquor, she added considerably to the general hilarity" of a July 4th Horse race. She perched atop the roof of her house, urging riders on. Despite her alcoh0lic sprees, SALLY ANN was liked and respected.

That was the case with most of the last survivors. They were liked and part of the pioneer community, and their inability to hold liquor was taken for granted as was their love for bright clothes.

Dressed in white woman’s castoffs, the Indian "women displayed a wealth of color that rivals the nasturtium…gowns exceed the resources of the dye pots in the matter of red...Soloman in all his glory was not arrayed like any of these"

One Indian woman who endeared herself to white people was TA-BU-CE, meaning "Grass Nut" or "Sweet Roots", whose Americanized name was MAGGIE HOWRD. Although born a Piute, at Mono Lake, TABUCE spent much of her long life in Yosemite Valley accepting, and adapting to, white man’s ways. She worked in the Sentinel Hotel, and private homes, as a maid and housekeeper and became as adept at acquiring tips as any saucy Irish maid.

In her maturity she reverted to ancestral ways, communicating this primitive life to visitors who thronged to the Indian Village to see her give demonstrations of basket weaving and acorn preparation. She picked up where MARIA LEBRADO had left off in interpreting Indian life.

She learned to handle a microphone, lecture with composure, answer questions with dignity and pose for pictures patiently, though reluctantly. When cameras clicked without her permission, she grew annoyed. Once she muttered, about an inconsiderate cameraman, "Him take picture, all same bear!" However, picture-taking permission was always forthcoming upon receipt of a tip!

TABUCE was noted locally for her frugality. Her electricity bill never rose above the 35 cents minimum and she saved about $1800 from tips, basket and acorn bead sales.

Her English was good, but speaking a rude, broken dialect to keep up an authentic atmosphere for tourists became almost habitual with her.

In talking of bicycle riding, she said "No, No, me killum self on bicycle. "Her transportation was shank’s mare unless someone she knew gave her an automobile ride.

She was superstitious. A preserved salamander reminded her of a day: "Long time ago way down by El Portal we go hunting for Indian wild grass. We see that on (salamander). He walk along very slow like him not go very far. He (Indian companion) say not kill that one. He bad one. But I not know that so I picked up a stick and killed him. Right away hoo-pa-oo-cha (rain) came. We get all wet!"

She was afraid of evil witches and prayed to animal gods before eating, believing that food cold not hurt her after prayer. Like most women, and her valley ancestresses, she was eternally feminine. When one elderly woman asked how old she was, aged TABUCE replied promptly, " I am 16—how old are you?"

LUCY PARKER TELLES succeeded TABUCE as basket maker and visitor attraction in the late 1940’s. Her grandmother, SUZIE SAM, Scorned white men’s housing for life in the labyrinth Indian Caves of the Valley. LUCY, had lived at the mouth of those caves for a time, and used the grinding hole for preparing acorn meal. After living for years in poverty, in a bark humanacha, she began to weave baskets in the 1920’s. This brought her and her family comparative wealth and fame. She pent four years on an enormous basket that was three feet high and over nine feet around. It took first prize in the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco and was admired by million. It and many other specimens are on display in the Yosemite Museum.

Fine basket weaving was the hallmark of the Ahwahneeches. There were closely woven, of many practical types and uses, and decorative as useful.

In the 1960’s the dying art of basket weaving was revived by JULIA PARKER, a POMO Indian who married Ralph PARKER, a PIUTE, and lives in Yosemite Valley. Summer visitors are impressed with her attractive quiet charm and her demonstrations of ancient customs.

It seem fitting that a few Indians live, as did the original inhabitants within Ah-wah’-nee, "deep, grassy valley."

MADERA HERITAGE QUARTERLY, Madera Genealogy Society, VOL. VI – 2, MAY 1988 (reprinted with permission)

Last update: December 29, 2000
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