Monday, May 23, 2011

Native American Rivalry Over Hetch Hechy

John Muir with Yosemite-Mono Paiute, circa 1901

“Miwuk girls are ugly,” Paul had told Jack, after taking a seat on Jack’s porch and popping open a can of Coke he’d found in Jack’s fridge. “I was hoping to get a date but the girls looked like your dog.”
Jack’s dog, an old mongrel, got off the porch and disappeared around the corner of the house. Paul watched the dog go and said, “A couple looked like your dog’s ass.”
“Now look what you did,” Jack said. “You insulted my dog. Go apologize.”
Paul drained half the Coke. “Hey, I heard a new joke. Want to hear it?”
“So, some Miwuks were celebrating in the corner of a bar one day and they were shouting, ‘Forty-one days! Forty-one days!’ So the bartender’s watching them, and more Miwuks come in and join the celebration. The bartender finally gets curious so he goes over and says, ‘Why are you celebrating, shouting “forty-one days, forty-one days?” ’ ”
Paul takes another hit from the Coke and delivers the punch line: “A Miwuk holds up a ten-piece puzzle box and says, ‘The box says four to six years, but it only took us forty-one days!’ ”
Paul roared, and Jack smiled, despite his best effort not to.
“I don’t know why they hold that festival every year,” Paul said. “All they do is eat shitty food and play those stupid hand games, and dance around like it was still the 1800s.”
“Because young assholes like you have to be taught what it was like before the white man stole our land.”
Paul snorted. “That was even before your time, Uncle. You got to let that shit go. You know what was weird, though, there was a crazy white guy there dressed up like a Miwuk, in that stupid outfit that makes them look like chickens. He was dancing with the Miwuks, which means he was acting like an ass.” He laughed again.
Paul helped himself to another Coke, drained half of it and belched. “You should have heard the shit he was laying out. He was saying the white man killed the Tuolumne River and cheated the Miwuks out of their rights, or some shit like that. Like the Miwuks ever owned the Tuolumne River.” Paul laughed. “He’s white, but he thinks he’s an Indian.”
Jack, who had been thinking about Hetch Hetchy and working his way toward a nap when his nephew dropped in to drink his Cokes, was now wide awake. He said, “Yeah?”
“Yeah. You know what’s so stupid? Of all the Indians a white guy could pretend to be, he picks the Miwuks.” Another round of laughter.

Is there really a rivalry between the Miwuks and Paiute (Jack and Paul are Paiute) and do the Paiute look down their noses at the Miwuk as depicted in this scene?

From my research, probably not. At least not today. They might have been hundreds of years ago, when their paths crossed. That wasn’t likely because the Paiute lived primarily in the high country while the Miwuk stuck to the valley and foothills. The Miwuk in the valley lived in mud huts and were called “diggers”, and were considered extremely lazy and indolent by white settlers (invaders?).

The Paiutes were proud warriors; the Miwuk, not so much. The Paiutes’ last successful defense of Hetch Hetchy was against the Big Creek Band of Miwuks, who were repelled and driven back into the foothills.

The Paiutes didn’t live in Hetch Hetchy year-round, they migrated through it seasonally to gather food such as pine nuts, which could be stored for the winter. It was also a place of refuge for them, a sacred valley. When the 1872 the Lone Pine earthquake rocked Yosemite Valley (Hetch Hetchy is Yosemite’s little sister) causing massive rock slides, five hundred Paiutes were spotted in Hetch Hetchy.

I’ve taken literary license in this scene to show how the old Paiutes first heard of John Lightfoot. Paul’s joke about the Miwuks and the puzzle is an old one I Googled into; one Native American group really used it to make fun of another. I guess rivalries still exist. 

Hetch Hetchy Valley before being flooded.


  1. Interesting. Thanks for commenting on today's blog post.

  2. Not my most interesting post, but I enjoyed that part of my research. The Paiutes never gave their rights to Hetch Hetchy, or Yosemite for that matter. Other tribes gave up their land via treaty, but not the Paiutes. Which explains why the two ols Paiutes in my book thought they could get it back without asking.

    You're welcome, and thanks for taking the time to comment here.

  3. I also enjoy the research portion of writing almost as much as the writing.
    My step-mother is Native American (Creek- aka: Muscogee/Muskogee) so, your piece caught my attention quickly.
    It is sad what happened to our country's indigenous populous.

  4. It is sad, but I suppose it's what happened when one people take land from another. The Paiute never signed a treaty giving up Hetch Hetchy, or Yosemite for that matter. They signed treaties east of the Sierra and have a reservation (and casino) to show for it. The is the motivation for two old Paiutes who help the terrorist John Lightfoot in the book.

  5. I enjoyed the posting. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Type "walla walla miwok" in Google search and see something very interesting. Miwoks in the area were once called Walla Wallas, as in Walla Walla Washington, a place named after the Walla Walla.

  7. I remember reading something about that while researching the Paiutes and Miwuks. As I recall, many believe Paiutes came across the plains to California and the Miwuks came down from the Northwest, Oregon and Washington. I enjoyed this research too much; ended up reading far beyond the scope of the book, especially when it pertained to the Central Valley.

  8. The Paiutes guided Fremont from Pyramid Lake Nevada across the Sierra Nevada Mts, to Stockton and then on to San Jose. Remember Sarah Winnemucca, the daughter of the Chief, went to school in San Jose. We maintain the Paiutes were not afraid to go anywhere. As for Yosemite, the valley was a gateway to Paiute lands which the Miwoks were afraid to enter because witches lived there.