It Makes You Want to Cry

The Colonial Room

Above: “Colonial Room” at the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite, available for corporate retreats.

A large fire is growing around Yosemite, burning or threatening to burn the family camps that surround the park, including Camp Mather, a 350-acre site owned by San Francisco.

Some friends tell me the thought of those camps burning makes them want to cry.

I hear that. I’ve been to Camp Mather, and I’ve seen what a great time people have, and how the place is shared from one generation to the next. People are proud to say their father or grandfather camped there, brought them when they were children, and they bring their own children today.

Still, I can’t help thinking about the history of the place.

  • Camp Mather’s history as a family camp is actually thousands of years old—Miwok families came to that special place every summer, generation after generation.
  • The bedrock acorn grinding stones of Miwok families are still visible. The holes in the granite took generations to carve out, each one passed down from mother to daughter. You can find these at Camp Mather next to the men’s bathroom.
  • In 1849, there were approximately 10,000 Central Miwoks living within the Tuolumne watershed (in the area now burning).
  • By 1910, there were just 679 Miwoks left. The other 9321 had been murdered (at the site of Camp Mather and elsewhere).
  • The word Yosemite means “They are killers” in Miwok.
  • Dispossessed of their sovereign nation, the Central Miwok were allotted just 289 acres (61 acres smaller than Camp Mather itself) near the town of Tuolumne.
  • In 1912, the plans for the Hetch Hetchy water and power system were drawn up.
  • Camp Mather was the worker camp for the O’Shaughnessy Dam, the centerpiece of the Hetch Hetchy water and power system that still provides water and electricity to San Francisco.
  • For about 100 years, the city of San Francisco has enjoyed free electricity for all public transit, its general hospital, city hall, schools, and all public facilities. It has also enjoyed a fantastic water supply.
  • In the form of water and power, every San Franciscan gets a daily dividend in perpetuity thanks to the dispossession of the Central Miwoks.
  • With the dam’s completion and the departure of workers, Camp Mather became a family camp owned by San Francisco. Every year, SF residents enter a lottery for a chance to stay one week at Camp Mather.
  • About 550 campers visit every week during a 12-week season. It costs roughly $1200 for two adults and one child to stay a week in a cabin. From what I saw, campers were predominantly white, not unlike San Francisco’s premium neighborhoods. There’s a small lake, tennis court, baseball field, theater, swimming pool, horse trails, and archery range. All meals are provided.
  • A group of Miwoks were invited to come dance and sing for the campers a few years ago. They did one time, but have not agreed to come back since. No one at the camp is sure why.
  • A handmade sign near the cafeteria says, “The Best Memories Are From Camp Mather”
  • Today, there are approximately 400 Miwoks left: 200 residents in Tuolumne and 200 nonresident members. That’s a significant decline from the already tiny 1910 population of 679.
  • In 1958, Congress said the Miwoks and 37 other California tribes weren’t tribes anymore, a move that denied them all the federal benefits given to other Native Americans. In 2010 the Miwoks were once again recognized as a tribe – but this time only as a landless tribe, an important distinction that leaves them perpetually disempowered.
  • The Miwoks have an annual cry day.

In order to at least move the scales of justice however slightly, we could find a way to give the Miwoks something that benefits them in perpetuity—the same way their continuing loss benefits all San Franciscans and many Californians.

Might the Miwoks be remunerated in some way from the sale of the water or power that comes from the Hetch Hetchy system, which serves two-thirds of the Bay Area and irrigates vast swaths of the Central Valley?

Could they be given, say, one whole week to have Camp Mather to themselves?

Or dare I say it, might they be given Camp Mather? If Camp Mather burns down, the buildings will be gone, but the granite grindstones shall remain. The trees will return in time. And who knows, maybe once a year, the Miwoks will invite us up to dance for them.