Helen Coats stands at her kitchen sink, letting it fill with water for the breakfast dishes. “On with the chores,” says the 88-year-old. “I’m always doing something around the house when I have time.”

Outside her window, she notices a Subaru wagon pulling up her driveway. Her daughter’s dog starts barking.

“Oh, it’s Seventh-day Adventists, I mean Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re coming to preach,” she says, as she opens the door leading to her screened-in front porch.

“Finally, you find me home, huh?” she yells out to them. Two young women come up the stairs and one of them tells her they’ll be brief. “I don’t want to bother you guys,” she adds.

She hands Coats some religious pamphlets and they make small talk. Coats is friendly and gracious. These aren’t the first proselytizers she’s met.

Coats was born in Yosemite in 1927 in what was called the old Indian Village.

“We lived in tents then,” she says. “I was born in a tent and my aunt Alice was the one who delivered me there.”

At 88, Helen Coats remains active in her Native American community.
At 88, Helen Coats remains active in her Native American community. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

In third grade, Coats went to a boarding school at the Presbyterian Mission in North Fork outside of Yosemite.

Later, she worked for the park’s first concessionaire, the Curry Company — in the laundry.

“In those days, the natives all worked as manual labor,” says Coats, whose mother was a Paiute and father a Miwok.

She met her husband, Jack, there. They married in the Yosemite Valley Chapel.

“I think that’s the first time they ever had that many Native Americans in that church,” Coats says. “We had our ceremony there. Mrs. Adams sang at our wedding.”

That’s photographer Ansel Adams’ wife, Virginia Best. Coats baby-sat their children as a teenager.

Coats and her husband have now been married almost 65 years. They live in a small beige house perched on a hillside off a highway that leads into Yosemite Valley.

But, Coats says, she rarely takes the road into the park. “Everything in the Valley has changed so much,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like home anymore. Nope it doesn’t feel like home. I’d say if they could change the mountains, they’d probably do that, too.”

All the landmarks she knew as a child are gone: the old Indian Village where she was born, the new Indian Village where she lived as an adult, even some of the trees she used as markers.

“I have to visualize everything in my head,” she says. “It’s the rocks that I really go by now ’cause the rocks never change.”

And now, even new landmarks have disappeared, signs with names derived from Native American words. Ahwahnee, the word for the Valley, comes from Awhaneechee, Coats says — the name for the Miwoks who lived there.

“Originally those were native names,” she says. “So if you really want to get technical, who really put the names there to begin with, you know?”

But names like the Ahwahnee and the Wawona are gone, at least for now, while the park service and its former concessionaire, Delaware North, battle out the cost of these trademarks in court. Now there are new signs directing visitors to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel and the Big Trees Lodge.

Laurie Sylvester holds petitions asking Delaware North to release the trademarks.
Laurie Sylvester holds petitions asking Delaware North to release the trademarks. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Laurie Sylvester, a former Tuolumne County supervisor, says the loss of these iconic names makes her livid.

“The names that humankind has attached to this natural beauty ring in our hearts,” she says. “You say the Ahwahnee and it pulls up memories, but it’s mercifully a nod to the Native Americans and the first people that were here to witness this incredible sight long before the kind of commercial endeavor it is today.”

Sylvester, who is not a Native American, stands in the lobby of the newly named Majestic Yosemite Hotel. The word Ahwahnee is covered up with black tape on the Historic Register wall plaque.

“Just as we’re walking in today and we come down the hallway, I turn around to look at the historical sign and see black tape,” she says. “So it now reads the “black tape” first opened its doors to park visitors on July 14, 1927.”

Sylvester says she was so angry, she decided to start a petition on MoveOn.Org asking for the names to be released to the public. So far, the petition  has more than 7,500 signatures, but it’s the comments that really get to Sylvester. Many are from people who lived in or grew up around Yosemite and feel an emotional attachment to the names.

“These names belong to the Native Americans,” Sylvester says. “I think that’s what really got me roiled up. No, no one can own those. Just because you can doesn’t mean you have to.”

In a statement, Delaware North, the former concessionaire, agrees that the names do hold a special place in the nation’s cultural history, but this is a contract dispute. And, the company says, it was willing to let the park service use the names for free while the issue gets resolved.

Southern Sierra Miwok elder Bill Tucker stands outside the Mariposa Museum and History Center.
Southern Sierra Miwok elder Bill Tucker stands outside the Mariposa Museum and History Center. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Southern Sierra Miwok elder Bill Tucker also grew up in Yosemite. He now lives outside of Mariposa. Tucker says names like the Ahwahnee were likely an acknowledgement to the Native Americans who once lived in Yosemite. But he doesn’t see it that way now.

“Now it’s like a money market, trademarks here and there,” he says.

Lois Hogan Martin is Tucker’s cousin. She also grew up in Yosemite and now lives in Mariposa. “This is part of my generation, part of what I remember about Yosemite, thinking of those names,” she says. “Those structures have been there as long as I can remember.”

Names like Wawona probably came from native root words, Martin says. They get interpreted in many ways. “You know, depending on who they told them to, how they spell them and the meaning,” she says.

Ahwahnee is also spelled A-W-A-N-I, Martin says. And she can’t help but wonder: What if the hotel’s name stayed the same, but the spelling was changed?

In Yosemite, Native Americans Ask, ‘Whose Names Are They, Anyway?’ 14 March,2016Alice Daniel

  • Janie Ann Ross

    Bill Tucker! My brother Tom Christensen played football with you at Mariposa High. My mom Evelyn worked in the Ahwahnee gift shop. Dad, Don Christensen sang at the Bracebridge dinner and many weddings in the little chapel. I road with him to Indian Village taking some whiskey on Sunday to his friend. Do you remember Jane? I was 7 yrs younger than Tom. I was born in Lewis Memorial. We lived on the row then in Camp 6. Tom is in Asst living in San Juan. I live in Texas.

  • Yosemite Mono Lake Paiutes

    This is the caption this article used ” A young Native American mother
    carries her child in a cradleboard in Yosemite Valley.” You see they
    could not use the Truth that this is Susie and Sadie McGowan who are
    full blood Paiute. This article speaks alot of Miwok but uses photos of
    the Paiutes. This article is a sham!

  • Joe Rhoan

    There were no Yosemite Miwoks.

    While the NPS Of Yosemite would like you to think this, much of what they have put out as historical fact is either wrong or questionable. Much of the historical fact that you see today have been slanted to support Miwok theories but if you look beyond the name, you will see that this information has no credibility.

    Also, I think to some degree the Federal Law has been broken , meaning that the NPS of Yosemite has allowed the present day Miwoks ( A Non-Profit Organization) of Mariposa to agree and sign off on illegal digs conducted back in the day.

    While we have provided information to the NPS Of Yosemite outlining many of these facts along with written documents they listen with closed minds. .

    While I do agree that Tenaya’s band was taken to the Fresno River Indian Reservation, it should also be noted that the original Ahwahnee’s and Tenaya’s band fled to their homeland of Mono Lake, were they were absorbed into the Mono Lake population in 1854, but had always inhabited Yosemite National Park as their traditional homeland. This principal is based on the earliest written accounts of the Mariposa Battalion’s Lafayette Bunnell.

    Today, the National Park Service, is in the process of rewriting the history of the Yosemite Indians; committing cultural genocide and other atrocities against this great nation, the general public are being duped. So, while names seem to be a big issue , I think there is much more that has to to be addressed to make it right

    • Hi Joe, thanks very much for your comment. We will take your remarks into account in future reporting on the history of Native Americans in Yosemite.

      We have updated the photo caption to make clear it is a young Paiute mother in the image. To be clear, the photo for this story was selected by our online editorial team, not by the subjects of the story. Thank you again for your remarks.

  • Yosemite Mono Lake Paiutes

    So True Joe Rhoan The non profit corporation called the Southern Sierra Miwok members themselves dont really know their own ancestry.

Author

Alice Daniel

Alice Daniel loves the listening aspect of reporting because she gets to briefly walk in other people’s shoes. She has rappelled down into caves and gone up in helicopters for KQED’s The California Report but her favorite place to pursue a story is the High Sierra or any family-run bakery, of course. Alice has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and teaches at Fresno State.  She is a California Healthline Regional Correspondent and a frequent contributor to Success magazine. In her free time, she skis and hikes, throws pottery, practices piano and looks out the window.

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