The Southern Sierra Band of Miwok Indians, also known as the Ahwahnechee, lived in Yosemite Valley beginning in the 14th century. The Sierra Miwoks interacted with other Miwok bands and nearby Paiutes, some of whom also settled in the valley.
Miners came to Yosemite in the 1850s following the California Gold Rush. Tourism to the valley increased in the late 1800s as John Muir advocated for the area’s preservation. The Yosemite Indians had been largely ignored by government officials in the past and had no official relationship with the federal government. As more people camped in or visited the valley, the resources of the Yosemite Indians diminished. In the 1880s, Yosemite leaders sent a petition to Congress, claiming that the “destruction of every means of support for ourselves and our families by the rapacious acts of whites will shortly result in the total exclusion of the remaining remnants of our tribes from this beloved valley.” They asked for $1 million for the “future support of ourselves and our descendants,” but received no reply.
Yosemite National Park was created in 1890. The Natives were not removed, but their way of life was restricted, and they depended on money from tourism. They sold baskets, charged tourists for photographs, and participated in the Indian Field Days, a showcase of Native American skills, crafts, and games beginning in 1916. Soon after the Field Days began, the Yosemite Indians merged their camps into one village.
In the 1930s, Park Superintendent Thomson planned to build a medical clinic in the place of the Indian village. There was no talk of expelling the Indians, as park officials valued their contribution to the tourist trade and needed them as laborers. Instead, the park decided to build a new ‘Indian Village,’ starting construction on cabin houses in 1933. Thomson wanted to use the new village as a means of controlling the Indian population in the park. Residents were charged rent and utilities, a difficulty when park officials refused to hire them. David Parker wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933 saying, “I don’t see why we are not getting any chance, we are dependable as any men.” Once a resident lost employment in the park or retired, Thomson would end their lease and they would be forced to leave the valley. By the 1940s, the park’s Native population had been cut in half.
In 1953, the park service instituted the Yosemite Indian Village Housing Policy, allowing only permanent government employees to remain in the village. Park officials destroyed the homes of those who left in order to stop newcomers from taking their place, gradually pushing every Native family out of the park. By the 1960s the park service had burned all of the cabins except one, which they converted into a management office. Any remaining Indian workers were moved to park employee housing. Jay Johnson, the final Native employee to retire, left the park in 1996.