3. Background

I was taught American history from east to west. Perhaps, as a result, my own compass has always tended to point in a northwesterly direction. The day after graduating from college in Minnesota, I packed a rental car full of all my possessions and drove to California. I spent the next five years exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains, following in the well-trodden footsteps of many before me. In 2001, while hiking from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail, I read a book about the history of Yosemite National Park that challenged many of the stories I had learned as a child.

For me the inadvertent climax of the book [Discovery of the Yosemite], the passage that haunted me, was a scene at Lake Tenaya, after the old Chief and his people had been captured, just before they were marched to the flatlands of the San Joaquin Valley to live on a reservation. The passage runs, "When Ten-ie-ya reached the summit, he left his people and approached where the captain and a few of us were halting.... I called him up to us, and told him that we had given his name to the lake and river. At first he seemed unable to comprehend our purpose, and pointing to the group of glistening peaks, near the head of the lake, said 'It already has a name; we call it Py-we-ack.' Upon my telling him that we had named it Ten-ie-ya, because it was upon the shores of the lake that we had found his people, who would never return to it to live, his countenance fell and he at once left our group and joined his family circle. His countenance indicated that he thought the naming of the lake no equivalent for his loss of territory."

Usually annihilating a culture and romanticizing it are done separately, but [Lafayette] Bunnell neatly compresses two stages of historical change into one conversation. Bunnell says, in effect, that there is no room for these people in the present, but they will become a decorative past for someone else's future. (219-220)

Savage Dreams (1994)
Rebecca Solnit

Discovery of the Yosemite (1880)
Lafayette Bunnell

Four years later, I read another book - this one about the Illinois Indians.

Their name, even, now must be blotted out from among the names of the aboriginal tribes. Henceforth they must cease to be of the present, and could only be remembered as a part of the past. This is the last we know of the last of the Illinois. They were once a great and a prosperous people, as advanced and as humane as any of the aborigines around them; we do not know that a drop of their blood now animates a human being, but their name is perpetuated in this great State, of whose record of the past all of us feel so proud, and of whose future the hopes of us all are so sanguine. (18)

The Last of the Illinois and a Sketch of the Pottawatomies (1870)
John Dean Canton

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