Almost entirely wiped out by disease and violence, the Miwok ("mee-wuck") indians once thrived along the ocean coasts, river banks, foothills, and lowlands of California, including what is now Yosemite National Park.
Who Are the Miwok
In the 18th century, the Miwok population stood at over 20,000. Making up that population were seven branches, each with its own languange and territory:
- Coast Miwok (north of what is now San Francisco)
- Lake Miwok (Clear Lake Basin)
- Bay Miwok (delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers)
- Plains Miwok (farther up the lower Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers)
- Northern, Central & Sierra Miwok (all three in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada)
As hunter-gatherers, the Miwok people were exceptionally adept in utilizing the natural resources around them. For example, they used a plant called soap root to not only clean their bodies but to catch fish. The entire plant was crushed and placed into a small area with weak currents. The toxins from the plant would then stun the fish, and the hunters would quickly grab them.
Mistreatment & Eradication
Much of the Miwok history during the mid-1800s is littered with tragedy and hardship. During the 1849 gold rush, thousands of Miwok indians were killed or died of starvation as a result of mistreatment from the miners.
Bill Tucker of Mariposa, California once lived on the park and recounts the struggles of his Miwok family as state-funded militias forced them out of their settlements.
"My great, great, great grandmother had to go above Mirror Lake and hide in the caves. She couldn’t make any noise. The guys would come in and go looking for her."
When non-indians began taking residence throughout the Yosemite valley, the number of Miwok people shrank dramatically. Employment and housing for indians became difficult to obtain, and the national park later dismantled the last remaining Miwok village.
John Muir, naturalist and resident of Yosemite, wrote that the natives he interacted with were "most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous....they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass." He, along with many other white residents, took little care of the indigenous people. This influenced Yosemite's national park policy of separating Native Americans from their homes found throughout the park.
After decades, the National Park Service recently approved members of the Miwok tribe to restore the centuries-old Wahhoga village next to the Camp 4 campground near Yosemite Falls. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "They plan to build a seven-acre enclave with bark homes, acorn granaries, a sweat lodge and other traditional dwellings." Member of the tribe will not live on the property but will use it to congregate, worship, and socialize.
Impact on Yosemite
Apart from all of the cultural aspects of Yosemite National Park that visitors can learn about and appreciate today, the Miwok left a physical footprint on the park as well.
The natives of Yosemite understood the concept of fighting fire with fire. They helped protect the landscapes from catastrophic fires by deliberately and strategically setting fire to specific areas. This also helped the biodiversity of plants that they used for a variety of purposes.
They also harvested acorns from the California Black Oak. Many of the California Black Oak forests found throughout Yosemite today thrive partly due to Miwok cultivation.
The removal of the native Miwok people actually lead to a decline in Yosemite's landscape appeal. Trees became 20% smaller. More flammable species pushed out the shade-intolerant ones. The forest became more susceptible to catastrophic fires. Biodiversity as a whole receded. What once were wide open meadows turned into overgrown fields of thin trees and scrub brush.
The Miwok Today
Today there are around 3,500 Miwok in total. Many live in the surrounding areas of Yosemite. The Miwok culture is still alive and being practiced. The Acorn Festival in Tuolumne, California is an annual event that celebrating the black oak acorn harvest and features traditional dances, games, arts & crafts, and cuisine of the Miwok people.
Our Yosemite National Park Designs
Thanks to the great care of its indigenous residents, Yosemite National Park boasts some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Our Half Dome and El Capitan designs are tributes to this magnificent park and its natives.