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Paiute Captain John and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife meet

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

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Paiute Captain John and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife meet

Postby Yosemite_Indian » Sat Jul 09, 2011 5:57 am

Paiute Wesley Dick, Captain John photo by J.J. Reilly titled; "The Old Indian Chief of Early Days in Yosemite, Cal."

There was a recent story in the Reno Evening Gazette regarding a Paiute traditionalist named Wesley Dick who was gathering cattails, also tules, which our people have been doing for eons when he was cited by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer with an $800 fine. Wesley Dick was shocked because our people had been collecting cattails for undisturbed for centuries until this year;


This reminded me of a tale written by Ella M. Cain in her book The Story of Early Mono County, page 121, about an encounter that Yosemite – Mono Lake Paiute chief Captain John had with a US Fish and Wildlife officer in the early 1900s.

Captain John was the chief of Mono Lake Paiute Kutzadika’a and as a young man took over leadership of the band after his father, Old Captain John, was too old to continue. The younger Captain John took leadership during the time when whites were encroaching into the area. Captain John was also the chief of the Mono Lake Paiutes when he had invited Chief Tenaya and his band of Ahwahneechees to stay with them after they escaped the reservation on the western side of the Sierra Nevada. Captain John’s hospitality was paid with theft when some of Tenaya’s men stole the Mono Paiute’s horses and took off for Yosemite. Captain John and his men returned after they were off stealing horses from Spanish Rancherias to find their horses stolen by their fellow Paiute guests. This incident caused the Mono Lake Paiutes to seek justice and they retaliated by tracking and killing the majority of Tenaya’s band and returning the surviving Ahwahneechees back to Mono Lake where they were absorbed into the tribe. Captain John was the man who lifted a rock and crushed Chief Tenaya’s skull.

Unlike the Miwoks many Paiutes in the area like Captain John had a strong dislike for whites. Of all the tribes in Central California Mono Paiutes had the most adversarial relations with the white settlers, ranchers, and gold miners. Paiutes were once the dominate force in the Sierra Nevada and suddenly whites started to impose their will on all California Indian tribes. Captain John was forced to move several times as white settlers forced him out of several homesteads.

One prominent Mono County settler family, the Cains, always felt bad for the plight of the Indians and reached out to the reclusive Captain John and he reluctantly made friends with the Cain family. Captain John grew to be at ease with the Cains and started to bring the family ducks he would hunt. He did that for several months and then suddenly he stopped until he came to visit them again. This time with no ducks in hand and this is what Ella M. Cain wrote about the incident;

Several months elapsed before we saw him [Captain John] again, but this time he brought no ducks. He tied up the old grey saddle horse and came slowly to the door. My husband greeted him and said “It’s a stormy day for you to come to Bodie, Captain John.”

“John no mind storm,” he answered, “no afraid of bad weather; bad weather go way but Indian got trouble here, (pointing to his heart) that NEVER go way.”
“What is it, John?” said my husband. “Tell us about it. What’s your trouble?”
“Well,” he said slowly, “this thing happen and I no understand. I ask you, my friend, what it mean.”
“Two days ago I be for long time on my belly to get good shot at ducks. Then I bang, bang, and many birds fall dead in water. Then a hand grab me by collar from behind and pull me up quick. A man with big star on coat say “What are you doing there, Red Devil? Don’t you know you no can shoot ducks now? I can put you in jail for doing this.”
“What you talk?” I ask him and I shake all over. “You mean white man own all ducks, too? Indian can no more eat ducks?”
“Well sometimes he can eat them” he say, “but not now, Government knows how to take care of birds and fish. Indian he no understand. Government tell him when he can shoot birds and catch fish. You no more do this ‘til white man tells you it’s all right.”
Then I tell him “You all time say Indian no understand Government. He understand. I no savy what you mean by Government, but I know he no good for Indian. You white man go home. Go back your own country. Give Indians back his lands, his lakes, his rivers, his birds, his fish. You steal everything from red man.”

“I not here to fight you, John” say man with the star. “This my job to take care of birds and fish and you Indians do what we tell you…hear?” He walk away and I stand there long time in one place just looking at ducks on top of water. Then I go home with no meat for my wives and children to eat.”

We tried to explain the logic of conservation to him, but his counter-argument was, “Why do white man come here to eat up Indian’s food? Let white man go back where he come from across big water. Give Indian his country back. Always there will be plenty of fish and animals and birds for Indian to eat.”

We saw him less frequently after that, perhaps because he had no offering of ducks to bring. On his last visit to Bodie, we told him we were moving to Aurora, Nevada, a distance of about twelve miles farther away. He seemed disappointed and said. “Well, my friends, I see you some time again, but my old horse not too good any more to go long way.”

After that they hardly saw him again until they heard that he had died.

So when I read the story of Wesley Dick getting a fine for picking cattails, I thought about our own historic chief Captain John and his first encounter with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers.

The Story of Early Mono County by Ella M. Cain
Chief Tenaya was the founder of the Paiute Colony of Ahwahnee
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