|The Ahwahnee Hotel in 1980 (George Rose)|
The recent furor over the name of the Ahwahnee began in 2015, when a subsidiary of the Delaware North Corporation, which operated the park’s hotels, restaurants and shops for more than two decades under a government concession contract, lost its contract to Aramark (no tragedy there — the burgers were criminal). The government says Delaware North quietly registered the trademarks for the names on the hotel and the other places and is now demanding payment for their use. The National Park Service came up with new names and told Delaware North to get lost. Now there’s a federal lawsuit.
I dearly hope Delaware North loses, but I also hope that the National Park Service sticks with the new names, however ridiculous — and, while they’re at it, changes dozens of others. My vote would be to change Tenaya Lake to Pywiack Lake, relabel Yosemite Valley itself Ahwahnee and sprinkle the park with new historical plaques saying things like “On this spot, in 1851, American militiamen shot Tenaya’s son in the back, let him bleed out in the grass, then dragged Tenaya up to have a look and enjoyed watching him weep.”
That wouldn’t right the historical wrongs of genocide and land theft any more than removing a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville, Va., atones for centuries of slavery. But it might help replace the white-supremacist fantasy version of history with a version more aligned to universal human values, not to mention reality. It would also enrich our understanding of our shared history.
Of course, none of this will mean much without input from Native Californians like Mark Minch, an English professor at the University of California, Riverside, who helped me see the dubious value of Indian names as recorded by a white soldier in 1851 and the likelihood that name changes would do little other than soothe the colonial conscience. I got a similar response from Bill Leonard, a descendant of Tenaya and a longtime leader of the Southern Sierra Miwok.
Mr. Leonard reminded me that he’s just one guy and can’t speak for others, then gently explained that my whole argument felt beside the point. Renaming, he said, “is not going to make us feel any better or more important — the reality is, most of us could care less what they call things.” Mr. Leonard preferred to talk about the Southern Sierra Miwok’s decades-long campaign for tribal recognition by the federal government. The other thing on Mr. Leonard’s mind was the traffic. “If you want to figure how to get rid of some of the tourists, I’d be happy about that!” he said. “There’s so many people in Yosemite we can’t even get there. So we don’t care who calls what anything! You can’t even find a parking spot!” That may be too much to ask.