The Hard, Complex, and Sordid Issue of National Park Names

Writer Daniel Duane says good riddance to some of Yosemite’s questionably named sites.

The New York Times recently published a powerful op-ed by writer, climber, surfer, and general outdoorsperson, Daniel Duane (“Goodbye, Yosemite. Hello What?), in which Duane argues that there’s in fact a good side to many of Yosemite National Park’s iconic, decades-long place names (like the Ahwahnee Hotel being renamed the Majestic Yosemite Hotel) being changed in the wake of the Delaware North trademarking debacle—many of those names have disturbing origins rooted in the destruction of California Indian heritage. “The whole dumb episode is an opportunity for the National Park Service to dump dozens of place names that are the linguistic equivalents of Confederate statues,” Duane says in the piece.

Duane paints a particularly gruesome picture of the naming of Tenaya Lake, one of his favorite parts of Yosemite (“a place so important to me that I want my ashes scattered there”), as being christened “Tenaya Lake” by white men from nearby Mariposa who’d murdered a group of Ahwahneechee Indians and renamed the lake after their leader, Tenaya, who’d led the group of doomed Indians to the lakeshore, fleeing their pursuers.

Duane spoke to AJ by phone to dig deeper into what it means when the names of some of our favorite wilderness areas go unquestioned.

Were you already, let’s say, bothered, by some of these place names in Yosemite, or elsewhere in the Sierra, when you heard about places like the Ahwahnee changing its name? Or were you inspired by Delaware North’s attempt to trademark these names to look more closely at where some of the names came from?

DD: I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. Twenty years ago I was backpacking along Taboose Pass in the high Sierra, in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park. I walked out onto a little knoll after dinner and the view was staggering. I had this banal thought – I wonder if Indians ever hung out here. Then I looked at the ground and I realized there were literally thousands of bits of obsidian scattered where I was standing. I later learned that a few weeks before, a search and rescue team had come across that spot and they contacted NPS archaeologists who discovered the area was a massive archaeological site that had been occupied for thousands of years. It meant that a kid could have walked up from the Central Valley to his family’s village up there, in the middle of their thousandth summer of doing that, part of an unbroken cultural tradition that was going to last for a thousand more summers. And we’ve been backpacking up there for what, 50 years? Maybe 80? I realized that I had been seeing the Sierra purely through this culturally determined lens of “wilderness.” I was seeing it was a place without people and without significant human history. What that experience at Taboose Pass taught me was that there was infinite human history in the high country. A million ghosts had walked through those places. We somehow pretend that isn’t there.

Have you been carrying those sorts of feeling around in the backcountry ever since? Do you feel that still when you’re out there? I can imagine it might almost feel like trespassing.

I do feel that. It’s part of an ongoing project I have to better understand and to see human usage of landscape. I want to see that history. I don’t have an emotional need to pretend that that human usage didn’t happen out there. I think, for example, that John Muir did. Now, I’m sure I would have liked Muir had I known him, but that was their way [for the time] of seeing wilderness. But I don’t think that way of seeing wilderness is right for our generation, our era. We’ve gotten to a place culturally where we’re ready to have a richer, more nuanced understanding of the past, even when that means a more nuanced understanding of the past in the high alpine meadows of a place like Sequoia/Kings Canyon. I don’t know if trespassing is quite the right word, it’s a feeling that I am surrounded by ghosts that I can’t see but I want to see.

There are stories of dozens of families in the dead of winter fleeing the U.S. Army up into the high country near places like Dusy Basin (in Sequoia/Kings Canyon). If we really knew the history of places like that, when we are there, we’d see in our minds eye—like we do at Gettysburg—hundreds of women, children, refugees, hiding out from the army.

You finish the piece by suggesting that many places in the Sierra have their names changed to what they were presumably before contact, and further suggest that markers be erected on historical sites of conflict and conquest that might read: “On this spot, in 1851, American militiamen shot Tenaya’s son in the back, let him bleed out in the grass, then dragged Tenaya up to have a look and enjoyed watching him weep.” I’m wondering, who do we serve in that renaming? Us? Our guilt? California Indians descended from those who were wronged? What would you say to somebody who might question what there is to gain by injecting politics into places like the wilderness?

I don’t know that I have a great answer to that question, and it’s a good question, but my feeling is that, well, humans have a horrifying capacity for evil. It lives inside all of us, there is no skin color or religion that has a monopoly on evil. The reason to take down Confederate monuments or to put up statues next to them in conversation, or whatever, is to try to learn from history and not commit acts of ghastly evil again. If we hide these parts of our own history we raise the risk that we’ll fail to recognize the sign of evil if they were to begin to bubble up around us.

Wilderness and the outdoors world gives me a lot of peace of mind and happiness. Everybody I know in the outdoors world and adventure sports is really trying to live a good life. And their relationship to adventure sports is part of their attempt to live a good life. And what we do up there is important for us, it leads us to having good environmental values. But environmental values are a little empty without human values and concern for social justice as well. If the way in which we view national parks and wildernesses is to insist on seeing them as pure wilderness without human history and if that insistence is part of a lie, then our relationship to those places is inadequate in the way that it’s leading us toward a better life and toward being better people.

Photos by (top) Bryce Edwards; (bottom) Moonjazz

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  • Patrick

    Daniel Duane is a very thoughtful writer I’ve followed for years, good to see his name pop up on AJ. Very well written piece. Thanks.

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