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The Ahwahneechees: A Story of the Yosemite Indians (1966) by John W. Bingaman



Indian [Acorn]
Indian Cache

For ages before its discovery by white men, Yosemite Valley was inhabited by Indians. Owing to its isolated position and the abundance of mountain trout, quail, grouse, deer, bear and other game animals, and of acorns, manzanita berries, and other vegetable foods, it supported a large population. There were of three kinds; permanent villages, occupied the year round; summer villages, (May to October) after which the inhabitants moved down into the milder climate of the Merced Canyon; seasonal camps, for hunting and fishing. The camps were definitely located and each was regularly occupied at a particular season.

Some thirty-seven camps were counted, all of these were in the valley proper and at least six were occupied as late as 1898.

All of these people belonged to the Ahwahneechee or Ahwahnee Mew'wah. Their language is the southernmost of the three dialects of the once great Me'-wuk family, a family comprising a group of closely related tribes occupying the western foothills and lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada from Cosumnes River south to Fresno Creek. Yo-ham'-i-te being the name of the band inhabiting a large and important village on the south bank of Merced River at the site of the Sentinel Hotel. These Indians hunted the grizzly bear, whose name Oo-hOO'-ma-te or O-ham'-i-te - gave origin to their own. The tribe next north of the valley called the grizzly Oo-soo'-ma-te, which doubtless accounts for the euphonious form given by Bunnell and now universally accepted.

Names of all Indian camps are listed in the write-up 1917, by C. Hart Merriam. Sierra Club Bulletin, for reference.


*Excerpts: From Galen Clark, Indians of Yosemite Valley and Vicinity.

Their winter huts, or O'chums, as they called them, were of a conical form, made with small poles, and covered with the bark of the incense cedar. A few poles ten or twelve feet long were set in the ground around an area of about twelve feet in diameter, with their tops tied together. The outside was then closely covered with long strips of the cedar bark, making it perfectly water-tight. An opening was left on the south side for an entrance, which could be readily closed with a portable door. An opening was also left at the top for the escape of the smoke, a fire being kindled in the center inside.

One of these huts would hold a family of a half-dozen persons, with all their household property, dogs included; and there is no other form of a single room dwelling that can be kept warm and comfortable in cold weather with so little fire, as this Indian O'-chum.

Their underbedding usually consisted of the skins of bears, deer, or elk, and the top covering was a blanket or robe made of the skins of small fur bearing animals, such as rabbits, hares, wildcats and foxes. The skins were cut in narrow strips, which were loosely twisted so as to bring the fur entirely around on the outside, and then woven into a wrap of strong twine made of fine, tough, fibrous bark of a variety of milkweed. These fur robes were very warm, and were also used as wraps when traveling in cold weather.

During the warm summer season they generally lived outside in brush arbors, and used their O'chums as storage places.

Their clothing was very simple and scant, before being initiated into the use of a more ample and complete style of covering while living at the reservations. The ordinary full dress for a man was simply a breechclout, or short hip-skirt made of skins; that for a woman was a skirt reaching from the waist to the knees, made of dressed deer-skin finished at the bottom with a slit fringe, and sometimes decorated with various fancy ornaments. Both men and women frequently wore moccasins made of dressed deer or elk skin. Young children generally went entirely nude.


The Indians of the various tribes in this part of the Sierras vary somewhat in physical characteristics, but in general are of medium height, strong, lean and agile, and the men are usually fine specimens of manhood. They are rather light in color, but frequently rub their bodies with some kind of oil, which gives the flesh a much redder and more glossy appearance. The hair is black and straight, and the eyes are black and deep set. The beard is sparce, and in former times was not allowed to grow at all, each hair being pulled out with a rude kind of tweezers. They are naturally of a gentle and friendly disposition, but their experience with the white race has made them distant and uncommunicative to strangers. The young ones strive to live like the white people, and seem proud to adopt our style of dress, and manner of cooking. They all speak our language plainly, and attend the public schools near by, and acquire very readily the common rudiments of an education. Their old o'chum form of dwelling is now very seldom seen.

All the able-bodied men are ready and willing to work at any kind of common labor, and have learned to want nearly the same amount of pay as the white man for the same work.

As a rule, they are trustworthy, and when confidence is placed in their honesty it is very rarely betrayed.


The food supply of the Sierra Indians, was extensive and abundant, consisting of the flesh of deer, elk and mustang horses, together with fish, water-fowls, birds, acorns, berries, pine nuts, herbage and the roots of certain plants, all of which were easily obtained, mushrooms, fungi, grasshoppers, worms and the larvae of ants and other insects, were also eaten.

Their main effective weapons for hunting large game were their bows and obsidian pointed arrows. Their manner of hunting was either by the stealthy still hunt or a general turnout, surrounding a large area of favorable country and driving to a common center, where at close range the hunters could sometimes make an extensive slaughter.

When on the still hunt for deer in the brush, sparsely timbered foothills of the Sierra Range of mountains, or higher up in the extensive forests, some of the hunters wore for a headgear a false deer’s head, by which deceptive device they were enabled to get to a closer and more effective range with their bows and arrows. This headdress was made of the whole skin of a doe’s head, with a part of the neck, the head part stuffed with light material, the eye holes filled in with the green feathered scalp of a duck’s head, and the top furnished with light wooden horns, the branching stems of the manzanita being generally used for this purpose. The neck part was made to fit on the hunter’s head and fasten with strings tied under the chin. This unique style of headgear was used by some Indian hunters for many years after they had guns to hunt with.

They had various methods of catching fish with hook and line, with a spear, by weir traps in the stream, and by saturating the water with the juice of the soaproot plant. Before they could obtain fish hooks of modern make, they made them of bone. Their lines were made of the tough, fibrous, silken bark of the variety of milkweed or silkweed. Their spears were small poles pointed with a single tine of bone, which was so arranged that it became detached by the struggle of the fish, and was then held by a string fastened near its center, which turned it crosswise of the wound and make it act as an effective barb.

Their weir-traps were put in the rapids, and constructed by building wing dams diagonally down to the middle of the stream until the two ends came near together, and in this narrow outlet was placed a sort of wicker basket trap, made of long willow sprouts loosely woven together and closed at the pointed lower end, which was elevated above the surface of the water below the dam. The fish in going downstream, ran into this trap and soon found themselves at the lower end and out of the water.

The soap root was used at a low stage of water, late in summer. They dug several bushels of the bulbous roots and went to a suitable place on the bank, where the roots were pounded into a pulp and mixed with soil and water. This mixture, by the handful, was then rubbed on rocks out in the stream, which roiled the water and also made it foamy. The fish were soon affected by it, became stupid with a sort of strangulation, and rose to the surface, where they were easily captured by the Indians with their scoop baskets.


The Indians of this region, in common with most, if not all, of the North American, were of a highly religious temperament, most devout in their beliefs and observances and easily wrought upon by the priests or medicine men of their tribes. Elaborate ceremonies were carried out, in which all of the details were highly symbolical, and some of their curious and picturesque superstitions were responsible for acts of cruelty and vengeance, which in many cases were foreign to their natural disposition.


Dancing was an important part of all religious observances, and was practiced purely as a ceremonial, and never for pleasure or recreation. Both men and women took part, the men executing a peculiar shuffling step which involved a great deal of stamping upon the ground with their bare feet, and the women performing a curious, sideways, swaying motion. Some of the dancers carried wands or arrows, and indulged in wild gesticulations. They usually circled slowly around a fire, and danced to the point of exhaustion, when others would immediately take their places. The ceremony was accompanied by the beating of rude drums, and by a monotonous chant, which was joined in by all the dancers.

The great occasions for dancing were before going to war, and when cremating the bodies of their dead. The war dance was probably the most elaborate in costume and other details, and of recent years the Indians have sometimes given public exhibitions.


Many of the Indians in Mariposa and adjoining counties were polygamists, having two or three, and sometimes more wives.

Every man who took a young woman for his wife had to buy her. Young women were considered by their parents as personal chattels, subject to sale to the highest suitable bidder, and the payment of the price constituted the main part of the marriage ceremony. The wife was then the personal property of the husband, which he might sell or gamble away if he wished; but such instances were said to be very rare.

It is said that in their marital relations they were as a rule strictly faithful to each other. Children were always treated in such a kind, patient, loving manner, that disobedience was a fault rarely known.


At the time of the settlement of California by the whites, every Indian tribe had its professional doctors or medicine men, who also acted as religious leaders. They were the confidential counselors of the chiefs and head-men of the tribes, and had great influence and control over the people. They claimed to be spiritual mediums, and to have communication with the departed spirits of some of their old and most revered chieftains and dear friends. They were thought to be endowed with supernatural powers, not only in curing all diseases, but also in making a well person sick at their pleasure, even at a distance; but when their sorcery failed to work on their white enemies and exterminate them, they lost the confidence of their followers to a large extent.

With the invasion of the white settlers came forced changes in their old customs and manner of living, and a new variety of epidemic and other diseases. When a doctor failed to cure these diseases, and several deaths occurred in quick succession in a camp, they believed the doctor was under the control of some evil spirit, and killed him.

After the Indians were given their freedom from the reservations in 1855 the old ones, subdued and broken-hearted, sickened and died very fast, and most of the men doctors were killed off in a few years.

Their most common mode of treatment in cases of sickness was to scarify the painful locality with the sharp edge of a piece of obsidian, and suck out the blood with the mouth. In cases of headache, the forehead was operated on; in a case of colic the abdomen was treated in the same way, as were also all painful swellings on any part of the body.

The doctors also made use of certain rare medicinal plants in treating some diseases. The Indian women have great faith in charms made of the pungent roots of some rare plants from the high mountain ranges, which they wear on strings around their necks, or on a string of beads, to protect them from sickness.


In the early days of the settlement of California, it seemed to be the universal custom of the Indians along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Range of mountains to burn the bodies of their dead.

A suitable pile of readily combustible wood was prepared. The body was taken charge of by persons chosen to perform the last sacred rites, and firmly bound in skins, or blankets, and then placed upon the funeral pyre, with all the personal effects of the deceased, together with numerous votive offerings from friends and relatives. The chief mourners of the occasion seemed to take but little active part in the ceremonies. When all was ready, one of the assistants would light the fire, and the terrible, wailing, mournful cry would commence, and the professional chanters with peculiar sidling movements and frantic gestures, would circle round and round about the burning pile. Him-i-la-ya, was used by the cryers. When they became exhausted, others would step in and take their places, and thus keep up the mournful ceremony until the whole pile was consumed.

After the pile had cooled, the charred bones and ashes were gathered up, a few pieces retained, some would be sent to distant relatives, and the others pounded to a fine powder, then mixed with pine pitch and plastered on the faces of the nearest female relatives as a badge of mourning, to be kept there until it naturally wore off. Every Indian camp used to have some of these hideous looking old women in it in the "early days."

One principal reason for burning the bodies of the dead was the belief that there is an evil spirit, waiting and watching for the animating spirit or soul to leave the body, that he may get it to take to his own world of darkness and misery. By burning the perishable body they thought that the immortal soul would be more quickly released and set free to speed to the happy spirit world in the El-o'-win, or far distant West, while with their loud, wailing cries the evil spirit was kept away.

The young women take great care of their long, shining, black hair, which they all feel very proud of, as adding much to their personal beauty, and they seldom have it cut before marriage. But upon the death of a husband the wife has her hair all cut off and burned with his body, po that he may still have it in his future spirit home, to love and caress as a memento of his living earth-wife.

In recent years the Yosemites and other remanents of tribes closely associated with them, have adopted the custom of the white people, and bury their dead. The fine expensive blankets, and most beautifully worked baskets, which have been kept sacredly in hiding for many years, to be buried with the owner, are now cut into small fragments before being deposited in the ground, for fear some white person will desecrate the grave by digging them up and carrying them away.

There are no people in the world who show more reverence for their dead, or hold their memory more sacred, than these so-called "Digger" Indians.


The old Indians are all very reticent regarding their religious beliefs. They hold them too sacred to be exposed to possible ridicule, and it is therefore very difficult to get information from them by direct question.

They felt their original ancestors, in the past, dwelt in a better and much more desirable country than this, in the El-o'-win, or distant West, and that by some misfortune or great calamity they were separated from that happy land, and became wanderers in this part of the world. They also believe that the spirits of all good Indians will be permitted, after death, to go back to that happy country of their ancestors origin; but that the spirits of bad Indians have to serve another earth life in the form of a grizzly bear, as a punishment for their former crimes. Hence, no Indians ever eat bear meat if they know it. All the old Indians are spiritualists, and very superstitious in their religious beliefs.

They all have a great fear of evil spirits, which they believe have the power to do them much harm and defeat their undertakings. They also have a fairly distinct idea of a Deity or Great Spirit, who never does them any harm, and whose home is in the happy land of their ancestors in the West.


The twining and coiling methods were used chiefly by Yosemite Indian women in weaving baskets. In the twined basket, the heavy foundation is vertical from the center to the rim, and the woof is of lighter material. In the coiled basket, the heavy foundation is laid in horizontal coils around the basket with the filling running spirally around heavy twigs.

Willow, squaw bush, red-bud, tule-root, red strips of bark from Creek Dogwood, maiden-hair fern, brake fern, wire bunch grass, and other native plants served the Indian woman as material for the many baskets needed to properly perform her domestic tasks. She knew the names of all the basket material plants, their locations, and the proper time for gathering them as well as any botanist.

After gathering the materials, a further knowledge of how to prepare them for weaving was necessary. They had to be peeled, trimmed to correct width, fineness and length, soaked in cold water, boiled or buried in mud, according to her knowledge of the treatment required. Roots of the brake fern were boiled in order to obtain the black material used in designs; red-bud was employed for the red color.

Considering that the Indian woman worked entirely without written rules, the design, color, and the mathematical accuracy of her baskets in entirety represent a work of art.


Living close to nature as did the Indians, in constant close relationship with animals, plants, and other natural features, it is easy to understand how their religion, their superstitions, and their legends should center around the great cliffs and spires, the waterfalls, animals, and even the winds which they knew in their daily existence. As is characteristic of primitive peoples without a written alphabet, the legends of the Yosemite Indians were handed down by word of mouth, from generation to generation. It is reasonable to assume that elaborations developed with the passing of time.

Numerous Indian Legends have been written and are available in bookstores.


Their bows were made of a branch of the incense cedar or of the California nutmeg, made flat on the outer side, and rounded smooth on the inner or concave side when the bow is strung for use. The flat, outer side was covered with sinew, usually that from the leg of a deer, steeped in hot water until it became soft and glutinous, and then laid evenly and smoothly over the wood, and so shaped at the ends as to hold the string in place. When thoroughly dry the sinew contracted, so that the bow when not strung was concave on the outer side. When not in use the bow was always left unstrung.

The primitive weapons, which were in universal use by the Yosemite Indians years ago, are now never seen except in some collections of Indian relics and curios.

Other articles manufactured by these tribes were stone hammers, and also others made from the points of deer horns mounted on wooden handles, which they used in delicately chipping the brittle obsidian in forming arrowheads. Rude musical instruments, principally drums were also made.


[*These excerpts taken from "Indians of Yosemite Valley and Vicinity" by Galen Clark, may well help to explain how the old time Indian lived before white people invaded his domain. Pg. 13 - 21


The first record of Indian Field Days was August 7, 1916, when one hundred and fifty Piute, Mono, Digger, and Yosemite Indians gathered to lend their quaint and picturesque presence to the. scene. The Desmond Company gave $100 in prizes for the contests and races, and gave toys to the numerous Indian children. They gave a barbecue for the Indians on the plaza of Yosemite Falls Camp. From one o’clock when the Parade of the Indians began the march from the village, till the war dance ended in late evening, the dusky people reveled enthusiastically.

For the Indian baby show at 4 o’clock, no less than 1500 people gathered around the contestants to judge the types of healthy babyhood.

These Indian Field Days were held in Yosemite every summer, about August 1. Chief Ranger Townsley was responsible for the management of these events. August 1924, was the last celebration, as it was thought too commercial for the Park Service to permit these gatherings. The cowboys from the outside competed in the races and games, soon there were arguments and dissatisfaction. So, therefore, the Director of the Parks ended the Indian Field Days.


The Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery was laid out during the last century perhaps as early as 1870. At that time Yosemite Valley was under the guardianship of the State of California.

Early pioneers had been buried in various places in the valley. Later the graves that were known were moved to this location. In 1906 the cedar trees were planted and the fence that surrounds the cemetery was put in place.

Bits of information on Indian graves in the cemetery were gathered from many sources, including interviews with Indians living in Yosemite. Without a doubt untold burials took place there in the early days without any records.

Cremation was practiced by the Ahwahneechees living in pre-discovery Yosemite. The last ceremony of this kind in the Valley was upon the death of a nephew of Chief One-Eye Dick, killed in a hunting accident about 1873.

The earliest recorded Indian burial was that of Kosano, father of Ta-bu-ce, about 1875. He was buried just south of the large rock that is seen near the southeast corner of the museum.

Many Pioneers of note are buried there along with many Indians. You may enjoy a walk through the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery, turning back the pages of time for a little while to forget some of the worries of our modern age.

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