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Yosemite Half Dome: the legend of Tissayack

Discussion about Yosemite National Park history, including Native Americans, Euro-American pioneers and settlement, and establishment as a national park.

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Yosemite Half Dome: the legend of Tissayack

Postby Yosemite_Indian » Wed Jan 21, 2009 1:59 am


Yosemite's most distinctive monument, Half Dome, dominates most Valley views. Standing at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome rises to an elevation of 8,842 feet. At 87 million years old, the type of granite making up the dome is the youngest plutonic rock in the Valley. (Plutonic rock is formed beneath the earth's surface by intense heat, pressure and slow cooling.) The remaining portions of granite on Half Dome's face are believed to have sheered off during its cooling phase 100 million years ago, deep under the Pacific seabed. Succeeding glaciers deposited some of the debris in moraines along the Valley floor.

If you ever read the book “Legends of the Yosemite Miwoks”, you might come across the legend of Tissayack, the legend of Yosemite’s beautiful Half Dome. In the “Legends of the Yosemite Miwok” written by Yosemite National Park’s Craig Bates and others you will read the ‘sanitized’ version of Tissayack. I write sanitized because in his book Craig D. Bates stripped all references of Mono Lake Paiutes from the story. Bates, who at the time of his early employment at Yosemite National Park was married to a Mewuk woman and we believe wanted to convey that Yosemite was a Miwok homeland, but that is not true. What we Paiutes are going to do is relay the real story of the legend of Half Dome, and reveal the real meaning of Tissayack, something the Miwoks could not figure out what it meant. Because Tissayack is not a word found in the Miwok language.

Here is the Legend of Tissayack, the legend of Half Dome and what was left out by Craig D. Bates:

Many, many generations ago, long before the Creator had completed the fashioning of the magnificent cliffs in the Valley of Ahwahnee, there dwelt in the arid desert around Mono Lake an Indian couple. Learning from other Indians of the beautiful and fertile Valley of Ahwahnee, they decided to go there and make it their dwelling place. They began their journey into the Sierra Nevada towards Yosemite Valley, he carrying deer skins, and she holding a baby cradle in her arms and carrying a (wono) basket on her back. When the couple reached the site of present-day Mirror Lake, they began to quarrel. She wanted to go back to Mono Lake, but he refused, saying that no oaks or other trees grew there. He would not listen to her when she said she would plant seeds.

In despair, the girl began to cry and ran back toward the Paiute homeland of Mono Lake. Her husband grew angry and ran after her. To escape she threw the wono basket at him and it became Basket Dome. She continued running and threw the baby cradle at her husband. Today, we experience it as the Royal Arches. Because they had brought anger into Yosemite, the Creator became upset at the couple. The Creator in his anger turned the two into stone. He became North Dome and she became what we know as Half Dome. The Mono Lake Paiute girl regretted the quarrel and the rock wall she became, Half Dome, began to cry, thus forming Mirror Lake.

Today, you can still see the marks of those tears as they run down her face. And if you look very carefully at Half Dome, you can see it is fashioned after the way the Mono tribe looked, hair bobbed and cut in bangs. Her rock face stained with tears facing eastward towards their ancient homeland of Mono Lake.

In olden times the first white explorers called her South Dome, later Half Dome, but in Paiute she is known as T’ssiyakka or the English pronunciation Tissayack.

For decades many historians have scratched their heads to the meaning of Tissayack. Mistakenly they kept asking Mariposa Indians also known as Miwoks believing them to be the original Yosemite Indians and tellers of the legend, but if they had asked Paiutes in the area they would have translated it for them.

T’ssiyakka means “crying girl” or in Paiute “girl-cry”, which fits the legend of Half Dome and not the “Legends of the Yosemite Miwoks” of the girl turned to stone with tears running down her face.

Of course Yosemite National Park Service does not believe anything the Paiutes say, and would rather rely on the “stories” of Craig D. Bates and those claiming to be Southern Sierra Miwuks. But we can prove what we say…like always.

In 1997, Yosemite National Park Service paid Brian Bibby to interview elders who were descendent to the original Indians of Yosemite. The Park was looking for Miwok history and what they got was actually Paiute Yosemite history. One of those informants was Gene Watts who’s great-grandmother was Leanna Tom, a Mono Lake Paiute married to Mono Lake Paiute Bridgeport Tom. Leanna Tom is an important matriarch of those now claiming to be Southern Sierra Miwuks and surprisingly she only spoke to Gene Watts in Paiute. Watts stated in the Yosemite Oral History, January 22nd 1997, that he recalled his great-grandmother calling Half Dome the Paiute name of Tassiyakka.

T’ssiyakka in Paiute is Girl Who Cries or Crying Girl.

Even in the Legend of Half Dome in Yosemite Indians; Yesterday and Today (1941) by Elizabeth H. Godfrey, that Bates copied for his book “Legends of the Yosemite Miwok”, the Indian couple came from “the arid plains” and that they were entering Yosemite from the eastern side. Here is why. Mirror Lake is on the route between Mono Lake and Yosemite Valley. If the couple was coming from the west or Mariposa they would have reached Yosemite Valley first before they were by Mirror Lake, because Mirror Lake is located on the far eastern side of the Valley.

Plus it was documented that Miwoks were afraid to enter Yosemite Valley when James Savage questioned Chief Bautista, leader of the Southern Sierra Miwuk.

The legend had been ‘counterfeited’ by the Miwok workers of the military which came in and occupied Yosemite after the Paiutes had gone. Here is what Bunnell wrote in his book, The Discovery of the Yosemite, about that:

“The names of the different objects and localities of especial interest have now become well established by use. It is not a matter of so much surprise that there is such a difference in the orthography of the names. I only wonder that they have been retained in a condition to be recognized. It is not altogether the fault of the interpreters that discrepancies exist in interpretation or pronunciation, although both are often undesignedly warped to conform to the ideality of the interpreter. Many of the names have been modernized and adorned with transparencies in order to illuminate the subject of which the parties were writing. Those who once inhabited this region (The Ahwahnees), and gave distinctive appellations, have all disappeared. The names given by them can be but indifferently preserved or counterfeited by their camp followers, the “California Diggers (Miwoks)”

So the Legend of Half Dome, the story of Tissayack, is a legend directly tied to the Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiute people, and not the Miwok as has been falsely written.

Old mahalla in Yosemite with a wono on her back.
Chief Tenaya was the founder of the Paiute Colony of Ahwahnee
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