In July 1929 a frail, elderly woman quietly processed acorns on the floor of the Yosemite Valley. Her weather worn face appeared thin, yet firm like crumpled paper. She was a living record of the trials her people had suffered ever since they were herded into open air prisons at the point of a bayonet. As she sat, pulling back broken shell from acorns like damaged fingernails, a curiosity-seeking tourist offered her a nickel if she would serve him.
“No!” she cried. “Not five dollars one acorn, no! White man drive my people out — my Yosemite.”
Her name was Maria Lebrado, but she had once been known as Totuya. She was the granddaughter of Chief Tanaya of the Ahwahneechee, a revered leader who had attempted to shield his tribe from harm only to witness the murder of his son and the loss of everything he held dear. Now one of the last remaining members of her tribe, Totuya had returned home in order to die.
The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California’s San Joaquin River. Soft orange light had just begun to spill over the craggy peaks of the eastern mountains overlooking what was then known as the Ahwahnee Valley, causing the jagged minarets to ignite like still burning embers from the Indian campfires below.
All remained still inside the wigwams of the Ahwahneechee camp. But an attuned ear might have noticed that the early morning trills of the hermit thrush were strangely absent. A disturbed silence had entered the forest, broken only by the occasional clumsy snap of twigs as if from an animal unfamiliar with its surroundings. There was also the faint smell of smoke.
Suddenly, fires roared to life throughout the camp as multiple wigwams were engulfed in flame. White men quickly scattered from the light and into shadow. A party of vigilantes in the company of Major John Savage of the “Mariposa Battalion” had used embers from the Indians’ own campfires to set the shelters ablaze. It was a tactic that those with experience in the Indian Wars knew to inspire panic, relying on the element of surprise. Dozens of Ahwahneechee fled their burning wigwams as the fire rapidly spread to the surrounding forest. Thick plumes of smoke were bathed in a searing glow that was also now descending from the rocky peaks above.
“Charge, boys! Charge!” bellowed Lieutenant Reuben Chandler. A heavy drumbeat of footfalls now joined the sound of crackling pine as thirty men dashed from the surrounding bushes with their rifles. “So rapid and so sudden were the charges made,” wrote chronicler Lafayette Bunnell, “that the panic stricken warriors at once fled from their stronghold.” Savage’s men fired indiscriminately into the Ahwahneechee camp, a people who had called this valley their home for centuries.
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