What’s in a name? Yosemite

This summer I was finally able to climb Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is probably my favorite national park because of the magnificent views and great variety of hiking opportunities. And going up into the mountains is an excellent way to escape oppressive summer heat.
Half Dome
This summer was a little different from my previous trips because the landmark names have changed because of a contract dispute. The Ahwahnee has become the “Majestic Yosemite Hotel”. Wawona is now known as Big Trees Lodge. Curry village has become Half Dome Village. As I was trying to get to the trailhead for my hike, none of the place names were familiar. Which led me to the question: where did these names come from in the first place?

Yosemite: Yosemite is the word the Miwok used to call the people who lived in Yosemite Valley. /jose/ means “killer” and /meti/ is a plural suffix [source]. The people who lived in the Yosemite valley did not call themselves this however. They called themselves the Ahwahneechee.

Ahwahnee: The Ahwahneechee were related to the neighboring Miwok, Mono, and Northern Paiute tribes. They called their valley “Ahwahnee”, meaning “gaping mouth”. “Ahwah” means mouth, and “nee” means large. The suffix “chee” means “dwellers”, so the tribe called themselves the Ahwahneechee [source].

Wawona: “Wawona” is tied to the giant sequoia trees. The word represents the cry of the great horned owl, the Mono guardian of the sequoia [source].

Many other places in the park take their names from people. Curry Village was named after the Curry family, who started the concession stand/campground. Tenaya was the name of the Ahwahneechee chief who resisted the US militia’s incursions into Yosemite. Tenaya now lends his name not only to a lake in Yosemite, but to streets and schools in the area as well.

While changing the name won’t make a difference to the historic beauty of the Ahwahnee Hotel or to the post-hike refreshment of Curry Village, I do think something is lost with these name changes. The Native American history of Yosemite valley is obscured when the names are forgotten. Most people go to Yosemite for the natural beauty of the Sierras. But we shouldn’t forget the human history either.

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