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


Piute Papoose,
Yosemite Valley
Piute Papoose, Yosemite Valley

Little more than a century has passed since invading white miners first incurred the wrath of Yosemite Indians. The Mariposa Indian War of the early 1850’s brought a good deal of notice to certain Indian chiefs and subchiefs among the hostiles; lurid tales regarding these Indians spread through the hills. A limited literature also grew up around some of the storied people and places — a literature which, generally, was colored by the hateful bias maintained by many of the land-hungry whites. Moderately decent proposals made by U. S. Indian agents for the settlement of Indian pleas brought many criticisms by California politicians, abusive charges were hurled against the mediators, and on occasion, white champions of the Indians’ plea were murdered in cold blood. Under conditions of tension, ethnological considerations "went by the board", and very few, indeed, were the tribesmen who became distinct individuals in the printed record of the day. In other words, not many of the Yosemite Indians of a hundred years ago can at this late date be identified as remembered personalities.

During the several decades following the wars, the Indians of the Mariposa-Tuolumne-Mono country fared variously at the hands of the white inhabitants. In the mining camps the white lords sometimes downgraded Indian life to something less than human; for a time, even the courts in formal session classed the Indian as animal. In Yosemite Valley, a goodly number of hotel keepers, owners of saddle horses and stage line operators, merchants, photographers, guides, and drivers, as well as the women folk in the families of these local residents, welcomed the help and paid for the services of Indians. Some friendly inter-relationships developed in this connection. However, even the most affectionate and intimate association of this kind usually found no place in the printed record. Probably the Boysens of Yosemite Valley accomplished as much as did any family in handing down concrete evidences of the personalities of Sierra natives as they existed at the turn of the century. The Boysen Indian portraits are outstanding among source materials.

Now John Bingaman has given sympathetic attention to still later generations of "Yosemite" Indians. The brief biographies here contained make for some identification of Indians, young and old, who today frequent the haunts of the one-time Ahwahneechee. Bingaman’s biographical data, obtained with the help of Pheobe Rogan and her Indian collaborators, principally, facilitate the placement of each present-day Yosemite Indian upon the historic geneological tree representative of the several groups who formerly peopled the Yosemite region. The "original Yosemites," of course, did not originate in Yosemite; it is pertinent to note that the great chief, Tenaya, did himself point proudly to his Mono forebears. The family tree, then, is not a Yosemite tree; in fact, it is not limited in its spread to the great Miwok family. Some of the several small local bands who neighbored upon the Yosemites, belonged to those other major families, the Monos and the Yokuts. Numerous individuals from these other families "joined up" with the Yosemite band. Also there is evidence that runaway Mission Indians came to the Merced before the whiteman saw Yosemite. Traditionally, the Yosemites always were a conglomeration of peoples, and Bingaman’s notes indicate that the Indians now in the "Incomparable Valley" represent a mixture of strains more divergent than ever.

Perhaps the pioneering in Indian biography here demonstrated (Chapter 4) may stir an urge in an educated Indian mind which somewhere will lead to further compilation and a synthesis from the Indian point of view. The fragmentary and rather black record of the whiteman’s heartlessness, and of his old-time techniques in meeting the Indian problem in the central Sierra may well change under the stimulating warmth of federal payments of Indian land claims now in the making. The new order of things may place upon the docket of public conscience a listing of human rights pertaining particularly to Indian needs. Such progress as has been made in recognizing those rights must get an accounting.

Our thanks go to John Bingaman for initiative shown in shaping this little work, and for his determination in producing and distributing it in the face of big difficulties.


Orinda, California
July 1, 1966

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