Pestilence and Persistence: Yosemite Indian Demography and Culture in Colonial California
Kathleen Hull’s Pestilence and Persistence: Yosemite Indian Demography and Culture in Colonial California, above all, is a timely book, if not a necessary book. Timely in that current relations between Yosemite Indians and the park administration are showing signs of mutual accommodate after decades of mistrust. In fact, the Yosemite Valley’s cultural landscape will shortly have in place a new Ceremonial Roundhouse near Camp 4 designed by the American Indian Council of Mariposa County and endorsed by the National Park Service.
Perhaps this is what Ms. Hull means by persistent, that a history of survival by California Indians so rigorously pursued by former and current scholars, like Albert Hurtado in his path breaking book Indian Survival on the California Frontier, represents a generational shift in the way we think about the perverse “vanishing peoples” narrative.
But unlike some historians, even unlike some of her anthropological colleagues, Ms. Hull’s vested interest in the Yosemite Indian transcends the murky world of narrative, where scholars have shown a tendency to overstate their conclusions. Her scholarship, moreover, is based firmly in painstaking fieldwork, and her conclusions hardly sway from the material evidence procured over decades of careful study. To do this and then write a coherent book, despite its rich anthropological nomenclature, is testament to her skill as a scientist and writer.
Indeed, Ms. Hull has delivered a persuasive monograph that is provocative and satisfactory to her academic brethren who, since the 1970s, have begun to successfully deconstruct a colonial literature that all but dismissed the American Indian as victims to a dominant European culture.
The author’s core argument is one that scholars like Richard White, William Cronon, James Ronda, Sylvia Van Kirk, Peter Iverson, and others have pursued since the late 1960s, when the academy was forced to confront their bourgeois ways triggered by an American Indian protest movement at Alcatraz Island in 1969. For obvious reasons, this formidable event contradicted the presumed naivety that the American Indian was content to be locked away forever as prisoners, fending off years of servitude in a corrupt reservation system. Not only had the American Indian survived a colonial and progressive mandate of forced acculturation, but their essential culture was kept alive and practiced incognito.
Ms. Hull’s thesis, however, takes us back to a pivotal time in Yosemite history, a time that would have a significant influence on the national park movement. In March of 1851, a local militia, the Mariposa Battalion, led by James D. Savage, entered the Yosemite Valley with orders to relocate the Awahnichi Indians to the new Fresno River Reservation.
As the newest state to enter the Union, California was nonetheless a powerful political force in the American West eager to reshape a once complex territory recently acquired from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This sudden and aggressive march to progress by the Golden State had started just two years before when thousands of eager prospectors mined for what would prove to be an allusive dream of gold and riches.
Of course there were many who failed in their quest. But having already settled in the region they decided to stick around for awhile and recalibrate a productive economic future by converting California’s splendid natural landscapes into tourist destinations—Yosemite Valley being among the most desired. The presence of the Awahnichi notwithstanding, the government took a militaristic approach by trying to relocate these menacing Indians to Fresno.
As an anthropologist, Ms. Hull is not necessarily vested in the historical circumstances that led Savage and his troops into Yosemite Valley. Rather, she has spent the better part of a productive career thinking and writing about what came before, namely the transmission of destructive pathogens commuted against Indians by other coastal Indians who were living and working in the various Spanish missions roughly 60 years before Savage entered Yosemite Valley.
It’s a well-documented story and the subject of many fine books, like Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism. But here in California, beginning perhaps with the Berkeley anthropologists, the subject has been a regular source for robust scholarship. Ms. Hull is just the next in line to add significantly to the story of the Yosemite Indian by realigning some dubious work that doesn’t quite explain how the Awahnichi not only survived the onslaught of catastrophic disease, but even thrived once its impact was fully realized.
She is certain that pre-contact disease had in fact made its way from the coastal missions to Yosemite between 1790 and 1810. Ethnographic and archaeological evidence shows an already small population in flux. Remarkably, Ms. Hull is absolutely certain that the Yosemite Indian was cognizant of their precarious situation and immediately devised ways in which to protect the tribe from the devastating effects of European disease.
According to Ms. Hull’s research, a sensible solution adopted by the Awahnichi was to simply leave Yosemite, which they did by the late 1790s. Already familiar with the Eastern Sierra because of an established trade network, tribal leaders gathered their people and moved them to Mono Lake, where they set up separate quarters from their Paiute friends, at times adding to their tribe by altering marriage and social customs. Once there, elders continued to teach traditional tool-making techniques to their children, thus keeping alive a cultural identity unique to the Awahnichi.
Ms. Hull’s book is not unique in the sense that other historians and anthropologists have ignored this rather distinct way of looking at the American Indian. Take for example James Ronda’s classic Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, which is told from the perspective of the Mandan as they watched Jefferson’s mighty flotilla appear downstream on the Missouri River carrying scientific instruments and gifts in exchange for food and information.
Like Ms. Hull, Mr. Ronda simply approached the narrative from the Indian point of view and revealed an entirely dissimilar story that embraced the Indian as agents of change. The same was true for the Yosemite Indian. Rather than be ruined unknowingly, the Indians instead knew precisely the inherent danger of European pathogens and commuted various strategies to avoid a catastrophic ending.
Granted, very few can spin a story like James Ronda, and that includes Kathleen Hull. To the contrary, she is primarily an academic looking to advance her own carefully conceived argument and methodology. In this sense, for the general reader, the book can be a plow. Her confident use of anthropology, ethnography, ethnohistory, and ethnobotany is perhaps better kept for the heady crowds at Berkeley. Given that, it’s still a convincing thesis grounded in years of diligent fieldwork and the most sophisticated carbon dating techniques available.
It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good book about the Yosemite Indian. Mark David Spence’s disturbing Dispossessing the Wilderness came out over ten years ago and caused park administrators to take a good look at Indian policy, past and present. My hope is that Ms. Hull’s book will do the same. For one, the interpretive possibilities for the park are endless. Just imagine the power in having an American Indian interpreter telling an eager public about a time, long ago, when Chief Tenaya led his people over the Sierra to avoid the devastating effects of old world pathogens based on Ms. Hull’s findings. A game-changer, no less, in the way we currently think about the Yosemite Indian.