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Yosemite Nature Notes 47(3) (1978)


Craig Bates

Throughout the past 126 years, determining the true names and their meanings for Yosemite Valley has been source of heated debate. So much discussion and disagreement have taken place that today one is left confused regarding the true meaning of “Yosemite” and “Ahwahnee.”

When the Mariposa Battalion entered Yosemite Valley in 1851, the area was inhabited by Indians the soldiers called the “Yosemites.” It was not until 1877 that Stephen Powers in his Tribes of California identified this as primarily a Miwok group. [Editor’s note: Powers first identified the group as “Meewok” in April 1873 in “The California Indians: No. VII—The Meewocs,” Overland Monthly 10(4):322-333dea.] There was, to be sure, a great number of Mono Lake Paiute people who had intermarried with the Yosemite Miwok, and it seems from ethnographic data that the Mono Lake Paiute tongue and a sub-dialect of Southern Miwok were spoken here concurrently.

Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the Mariposa Battalion, stated that the meaning of the name Yosemite was not generally known when it was bestowed upon the Valley. Major James Savage, the Battalion’s leader, told Bunnell that “Yo-sem-ity,” as it was pronounced by Chief Tenaya, meant “full-grown Grizzly” (Bunnell, 1880, pp. 61-65).

This description was incorporated into Bunnell’s widely read book Discovery of the Yosemite. He also provided information which was the basis for several editorials included in the California Chronicle, the Sacramento Union, the Mariposa Gazette and other papers, which probably contributed to the widespread acceptance of this definition.

Dr. A. L. Kroeber, the late dean of California anthropologists, writing in 1921, stated that Yosemite was a corruption of “uzumati” or “uhumati” meaning grizzly bear (Hall 1921). He based his thoughts on the fact the Miwok had divided themselves into moieties: a clan-like system. Various animals belonged to the two moieties. and the grizzly bear was generally identified with members of the land moiety. Dr. C. Hart Merriam also agreed with this definition (1917, pp. 202-209). Yet, when one analyzes the term “Yosemite” linguistically, it takes on a different meaning. Although different ethnographers utilized various phonetic orthographies, the general pronunciation becomes “Yo'hem-iteh,” coming from the stem verb “yohe,” meaning to kill. The “miteh” portion is a collective plural suffix, thus the word “yo'hem-iteh” translates as “they are killers” (Barrett, 1919, p. 28; Gudde, 1949, p. 395; Broadbent, 1969, op. cit.)

These definitions are based on direct contact with Southern Sierra Miwok people who spoke their native language fluently. Very few such speakers remain today. One man remembers that his mother said the term Yosemite had something to do with killers (personal contact, John Sensor).

Though white visitors called the valley “Yosemite,” the native Miwok people seem to have used the term ‘Ahwahnee.” Bunnell states that he could not understand Chief Tenaya’s language. So, by means of signs, Tenaya attempted to indicate what “Ahwahnee” meant. Bunnell says, “I inferred from these signs that it must mean the deep grassy valley,” adding that “still, it may not mean that.” Others have quoted Bunnell”s definition and have cast aside his cautionary remark.

‘When Ahwahnee is transcribed through linguistic orthography it becomes “?awo-•ni“ [var. ?owo-•ni] (Broadbent, 1969). The stem word is seemingly “?awo” [var. ?owo•-] meaning mouth. Thus, “awo-•ni” becomes “the big mouth” or “place of the big mouth.”

This interpretation, has been available for some time, but seems to have been discarded for the more romantic “deep, grassy valley.”

In a 1933 National Geographic article on the Yosemite Valley we find the first mention of the word “Ahwahnee” interpreted to mean “big mouth.” [Editor’s note: there is no such National Geographic Magazine article in 1933. Karen Buehler in “Ahwahnee . . .” Yosemite 43(1):3 (April 1973) mentions a [March 23,] 1936 National Geographic [News] Bulletin article [by C. A. Harwell] “Red Men and White in Yosemite Valley” that states “To the Indians it (Yosemite Valley) was known as Ahwahnee for the inhabitants called themselves Ahwahneechee, People of the Big Mouth.”—dea.] A later reference appears in a letter written by a park naturalist in 1940 in which is stated: “However, Chief Lemee one of our local Indians explained Ahwahnee as big mouth.”

Inquiry among native Miwok speakers today reveals little memory of the word. Those that do remember it recall it as a term for the Yosemite People (with the addition of -che, meaning people of). They think that it may have something to do with the “place you go to pound acorn” or the “place you go and play” (perhaps from the stem “?aw•i” — play games, or “?aw•i?” — a playground).

The foregoing statements may serve only to further confuse the issue of the true meaning of the terms “Yosemite” and “Ahwahnee.” The discussion should help to point out that when searching for the translation of a specific native American term, one can never be too careful, nor ultimately correct.

[Editor’s note: For information on the correct origin of the words Yosemite and Ahwahnee and Bates’ unsupported claim that Yosemite means “some among them are killers” see “Origin of the Word Yosemite.”dea.]


Barrett, Samuel A., MYTHS OF THE SOUTHERN SIERRA MIWOK. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 16, 1919.

Broadbent, Sylvia M.[,] THE SOUTHERN SIERRA MIWOK LANGUAGE, University of California Publications in Linguistics, Vol. 68, 1964.

Buehler, Karen, AHWAHNEE in “Yosemite,” newsletter of the Yosemite Natural History Association, Vol. 43, #1, April 1973.

Bunnell, Lafayette H., DISCOVERY OF THE YOSEMITE, 1880.

Gudde, Irwin C., CALIFORNIA PLACE NAMES, University of California Press, 1949.

Hall, Ansel F., HANDBOOK OF YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, G. P. Putnams Sons, New York and London, 1921.

Harwell, C. A., “Red Men and White in Yosemite Valley,” Geographic News Bulletin, March 23, 1936.

Merriam, C. Hart, INDIAN VILLAGE AND CAMP SITES IN YOSEMITE VALLEY, Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 10, pp. 202-209. 1917.

Powers, Stephen, TRIBES OF CALIFORNIA. 1877.

My thanks to: Dr. Sylvia Broadbent, University of California, Riverside
Agnes Castro, Miwok and Paiute, Mariposa
The late Mary Cox, Northern Miwok
John Sensor, Columbia Junior College
Dorothy Stanley, Northern Miwok

Bibliographical Information

Craig D. Bates (Craig Dana Bates) (1952-), “Names and Meanings for Yosemite Valley,” Yosemite Nature Notes 47(3):42-44 (1978).

Converted to HTML by Dan Anderson, February 2007, from a copy at Madden Library, California State University Fresno.
    —Dan Anderson, www.yosemite.ca.us

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management