Visitors to Oakhurst, California, just outside the south entrance of Yosemite, find a town of 15,000 or so ready to cater to tourists and the lovers of the outdoors. Hotels, restaurants, shops, and supply stores line the streets, all frequented by people eager to see the area. In 1849, at the start of California’s gold rush, the area would have looked very different to those making the journey to seek their fortunes. Oakhurst didn’t exist at all. But the area was far from empty. This marks the border between two of California’s native nations, peoples who long pre-dated European “discoverers,” and who, despite a campaign of violence waged against them by the newcomers, rose above hatred to form an important part of the fabric of the modern region. They are the Miwok and the Mono, and this is only a tiny portion of their story.
The morning is warm, as mornings in August tend to be here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and I am the first visitor at Wassama Round House State Historic Park, just a few minutes north of Oakhurst off of Highway 49. Round houses of the Miwok people have existed on this site since at least the 1850s, and likely much farther back than that. This one was built in 1985. When a Miwok chief died, his round house was burned, and so each round house – some semi-subterranean and others fully above ground like this one – only lasted a decade or two at most. Round houses were used for communal gatherings and ceremonies, and the Southern Sierra Miwok continue to use this one to the present day, opening it to those interested in learning more about their ancient ways.
Wassama means “falling leaves,” a name I find especially appropriate when I consider the sad history of the Miwok people. In 1770, the Spanish estimated the Miwok population to be more than 11,000. By 1930, that number was down to just 491, though the Miwok numbers have rebounded to roughly 3,500 today. When gold was discovered in California in 1849, more than 100,000 settlers came to the area to seek their fortunes. It was inevitable that conflict would ensue with the native tribes who had lived on these lands for millennia. In December of 1850, the state government raised a battalion (named for the county of Mariposa – more on that in a moment), and the subsequent Mariposa War, which would last about a year, succeeded in nearly wiping out the Miwok, along with several other tribes. The aim was to force the native people off the land that might produce gold, and to do so, entire villages were attacked and razed, efforts that are now included in what we call the California genocide.
(A note on Mariposa County. Today, the county is tiny, but at the time of California’s statehood, it was huge, stretching from north of Yosemite all the way down to what is now Los Angeles County. After all, while there are currently 58 counties in California, there were only 27 to start with. Hence, while nearly all of the fighting in the Mariposa War took place outside of today’s Mariposa County, the name does make sense in the context of the time. Madera County did not yet exist.)
It is peaceful here at Wassama Round House, and while the round house itself isn’t open for me to peek inside, I cannot help but feel I am in a sacred space. And I am, for here a people have chosen life, tradition, and education. This place, simple as it may seem, assures a future for the Miwok people, keeping faith with their ancestors. To stand silently in the presence of that determination to persevere is an experience that is somber and meaningful.
Only a short drive to the other side of Oakhurst, one will find the beautiful Bass Lake, a bright blue oasis that attracts boaters and fishers from all over the region. Just south of the lake is the tiny town of North Fork, so named for the North Fork of Willow Creek that runs through. North Fork is home to the Western Mono people. For those interested in native culture – and let’s face it, all of us who live in or visit the area should be – the Sierra Mono Museum is a must-visit.
While many native peoples have claims of incredible pottery or basketry, the Mono are perhaps the masters of the latter. The museum hosts a stunning collection of both centuries-old and modern traditional woven baskets. It is said that the exact maker of each basket could be identified by the patterns woven in reds and blacks, created entirely from barks, grasses, and other natural fibers.
Baskets here at the Sierra Mono Museum range from small, roughly the size of a ring box, to those almost large enough for me to climb inside. The highlight, though, is the woven baskets used to carry infants. Patterns differ for boys or girls, and colorful woven ribbons are used to tie the baby in for safe transport. I have never seen the like.
There are currently about 1,800 Northfork Mono members, making it one of the larger recognized tribes in California, a sad statistic when one thinks of pre-Columbian numbers. But, as with the Miwok, their numbers are rising, both due to better access to healthcare and tourism dollars that fund it, as well as an increasing desire for young tribal members to continue to affiliate. These are proud peoples with incredible histories, and as those are being more actively celebrated by means of things just like the Sierra Mono Museum and Wassama Round House, more young people are embracing their ancestral histories rather than simply trying to assimilate into mainstream society. (Of course, both of these tribes are still part of society, and this isn’t meant to suggest that affiliation means withdrawal from modernity, only a parallel desire to keep traditions as well. So while the tribes educate members – and outside observers – on things like the building of a traditional cedar bark teepee, used by both the Miwok and Mono, members live in modern houses.)
We cannot, sadly, go back in time and undo the terrible atrocities committed against the Miwok and the Mono, genocide perpetrated in the name of gold. But we can learn. We can learn from the mistakes of the past. But more importantly, we can learn from the example these incredible peoples set for the future, of the ability to persevere despite near eradication, and of the wondrous efforts to maintain faith with traditions that date back to time unrecorded. The Miwok and the Mono stand as beacons of what pride in one’s self can, and should, be. May we all aspire to live up to that example.
Thank you so much to Visit Yosemite / Madera County for hosting me, and for arranging for such meaningful experiences exploring the native history of the region.
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