Miwok (Yosemite) Nation


Miwok (Yosemite)


Myths & Legends

How Half Dome Was Formed
(Legend of Tissayack)


Beginning of Thunder

Bear’s sister-in-law, Deer, had two beautiful daughters, called Fawns. Bear was a horrible, wicked woman, and she wanted the Fawns for herself. So this is what she did.

One day she invited Deer to accompany her when she went to pick clover. The two Fawns remained at home. While resting during the day, after having picked much clover, Bear offered to pick out lice from Deer’s head. While doing so she watched her chance, took Deer unaware, and bit her neck so hard that she killed her. Then she devoured her, all excepting the liver. This she placed in the bottom of a basket filled with clover, and took it home. She gave the basket of clover to the Fawns to eat.

When they asked where their mother was, she replied, “She will come soon. You know she is always slow and takes her time in coming home.”

So the Fawns ate the clover, but when they reached the bottom of the basket, they discovered the liver. Then they knew that their aunt had killed their mother.

“We had better watch out, or she will kill us too,” they said to one another.

They decided to leave without saying anything and go to their grandfather. So the next day when Bear was away they got together all the baskets and awls which belonged to Deer and departed. They left one basket, however, in the house.

When Bear returned and found the Fawns missing she hunted for their tracks and set out after them. After she had tracked them a short distance, the basket, left at home, whistled. Bear ran back to the house, thinking the Fawns had returned. But she could not find them and so set out again, following their tracks.

The Fawns, meanwhile, had proceeded on their journey, throwing awls and baskets in different directions. These awls and baskets whistled. Each time Bear thought that the Fawns were whistling, and left the trail in search of them. And each time that Bear was fooled in this manner, she became angrier and angrier.

She shouted in her anger. “Those girls are making a fool of me. When I capture them I’ll eat them.”

The awls only whistled in response and Bear ran toward the sound. There was no one there.

Finally, the Fawns, far ahead of Bear, came to the river. On the opposite side they saw Daddy Longlegs. They asked him to stretch his leg across the river so that they might cross safely. They told him that Bear had killed their mother and they were fleeing from her. So when Bear at last came to the river, Daddy Longlegs stretched his leg over again, but when the wicked aunt of the two Fawns, walking on his leg, reached the middle of the river, Daddy Longlegs gave a sudden jump and threw her into the river. But Bear did not drown.

She managed to swim to the shore, where she again started in pursuit of the Fawns. But the Fawns were far ahead of their aunt, and soon reached their grandfather’s house. Their grandfather was Lizard. They told him of the terrible fate which had overtaken their mother.

“Where is Bear?” he asked them.

“She is following us and will soon be here,” they replied.

Upon hearing this Lizard threw two large white stones into the fire and heated them. When Bear arrived outside of Lizard’s house she could not find an entrance. She asked Lizard how she should enter, and he told her that the only entrance was through the smokehole, so she must climb on the roof and enter that way. He also told her that when she entered she must close her eyes tightly and open wide her mouth. Bear did as she was instructed, for she was very anxious to get the two Fawns, whom Lizard had told her were in his house. But as Bear entered, eyes closed and mouth open, Lizard took the red hot stones from the fire and thrust them down her throat. Bear rolled from the top of Lizard’s house dead.

Lizard then skinned her and dressed her hide, after which he cut it in two pieces, one large and one small. The larger piece he gave to the older Fawn, the smaller piece to the younger. Then Lizard instructed the girls to run about and see what kind of noise was made by Bear’s skin. The girls proceeded to run around, the skins making all kinds of loud noises. Lizard, watching them, laughed and said to himself, “The girls are all right. They are Thunders. I think I had better send them up to the sky.”

When the Fawns came to Lizard to tell him that they were going to return home, he said, “Do not go home. I have a good place for you. I shall send you to the sky.”

So the girls went up to the sky. There Lizard could hear them running about. Their aunt’s skin, which they had kept, makes the loud noises, that we call thunder. When the Fawn girls ran around in the sky Rain and Hail fell.

So now whenever the girls (Thunders, as Lizard called them) run around above, rain begins to fall.

Bridal Veil Fall

“Bridal Veil Fall’s plume of mist seems to drop out of a lost world. The 620-foot cataract . . wears a triple crown: Cathedral Rocks.” The base of the fall is surrounded by trees and shrubs.

“The vast ravine of Yo Semitee, formed by tearing apart the solid Sierras, is graced by many waterfalls raining down the mile-high cliffs.” The Indians used to tell this legend about the one called Bridal Veil Fall.

Hundreds of years ago, in the shelter of this valley, lived Tu- tok-a-nu-la and his tribe. He was a wise chief, trusted and loved by his people, always setting a good example by saving crops and game for winter.

While he was hunting one day, he saw the lovely guardian spirit of the valley for the first time. His people called her Ti-sa-yak. He thought her beautiful beyond his imagination. Her skin was white, her hair was golden, and her eyes were like heaven. Her voice, as sweet as the song of a thrush, led him to her. But when he stretched his arms toward her, she rose, lighter than a bird, and soon vanished in the sky.

From that moment, the Chief knew no peace, and he no longer cared for the well-being of his people.

Without his directions, Yo Semite became a desert. When Ti-sa-yac came again, after a long time, she wept because bushes were growing where corn had grown before, and bears rooted where the huts had been. On a mighty dome of rock, she knelt and prayed to the Great Spirit Above, asking him to restore its virtue to the land.

He granted her plea. Stooping from the sky, the Great Spirit Above spread new life of green on all the valley floor. And smiting the mountains, he broke a channel for the pent-up snow that soon melted. The water ran and leaped far down, pooling in a lake below and flowing off to gladden other land.

The birds returned with their songs, the flowering plants returned with their blossoms, and the corn soon swayed in the breeze. When the Yo Semitee people came back to their valley,they gave the name of Ti-sa-yac to what is now called South Dome. That is where she had knelt.

Then the Chief came home again. When he heard what the beautiful spirit maiden had done, his love for her became stronger than ever. Climbing to the crest of a rock that rises three thousand feet above the valley, he carved his likeness there with his hunting knife. He wanted his tribe to remember him after he departed from the earth.

Tired from his work, he sat at the foot of Bridal Veil Fall. Suddenly he saw a rainbow arching over the figure of Ti-sa-yac, who was shining from the water. She smiled at him and beckoned to him. With a cry of joy, he sprang into the waterfall and disappeared with his beloved.

The rainbow quivered on the falling water, and the sun went down.

Leaping Frog Rocks


Long ago, the Yosemites named the three peaks outlined against the north ridge the Leaping Frog Rocks. Yosemites called them Kom-po-pai-ses, because they look like three frogs sitting on their haunches, ready to spring. Today in Yosemite National Park you can still see the same formation.

The last great chief of the Yosemites was Chief Ten-a-ya. Constantly he watched from his hideaway mountain lodge, and saw strange white horsemen riding from across the plains to the West.

Often he remembered what the Old Chief his father had said, “Obey my word, Ten-a-ya, and your people shall be as many as the blades of grass. No enemy tribe shall ever dare to bring war into Yosemite Valley.

“But beware, my son, of the white horsemen coming from across the plains beyond. If once they cross the western mountains, your tribe will scatter as the dust before the desert wind. Then the Yosemites will never be the same again.

“Guard your stronghold, Ten-a-ya my son, lest you be the last of the great Chiefs of the Yosemites.”

The Old Chief, trembling, had raised his peace pipe above his head and prayed, “Great Spirit Above, be good to my son, Ten-a- ya, Young Chief of the Yosemites.”

To the four points of the compass, he turned and prayed:

“To the pines of the north, cold Wind treat him kindly.

“To the rising Sun of the east, Great Sun shine upon his lodge early in the morning.

“To the place where the Sun goes in winter, south wind bless my son,

“To the land of the Setting Sun in the west, tenderly carry on the breezes a gentle sleep for him.

“Lowering my pipe I say to you, kind Mother Earth, when you receive my son into your warm bosom, hold him gently forever.

“Let the howl of the coyote, the roar of the bear and the mountain lion, and the sound of the wind swaying the tops of the tall pine trees, be to him a sweet lullaby.”

As he remembered the Old Chief’s words, Ten-a-ya guarded his mountain retreat like a mother-bear protects her young cub. With great anxiety day after day, he saw the white horsemen coming nearer and nearer from across the plains.

Ten-a-ya watched them take the land that the Great Spirit had made for the Yosemites and the other tribes. Ten-a-ya watched the white men burrow into the earth like moles. He watched them wash the sands and rocks of the rivers, searching for something yellow and shiny. They pastured their cattle upon the sacred hunting grounds of the Yosemites.

Ten-a-ya heard of the strangers stealing Yosemite women and girls for their wives. Nearer and nearer they made their camps, stealing Yosemite supplies.

Because Ten-a-ya was young and strong, he did not fear the white men. In his heart, he hated them for their disregard of what the Great Spirit had created for the Yosemites. Sometimes at night, Ten-a-ya and his braves drove away the white men’s horses or killed them for food in place of their own natural game which supply was stolen by the white men.

A feeling of defiance against the white man’s encroachment grew among the Yosemite braves. Ten-a-ya grew older with time. White horsemen increased in numbers, arriving at the very walls of Yosemite Valley. Again Ten-a-ya recalled his dying father’s words, and Ten-a-ya knew the evil day was drawing near.

The white men climbed the western mountains. They offered gifts in the name of their White Father in Washington, and then made Ten-a-ya their captive. Young Yosemite braves fled from their camps, crossing the North Dome to the camp of the Mono Indians. They were young and could hunt far for food to supply their families. They refused to be herded like cattle in the white man’s camp.

Though a captive, in spirit Chief Ten-a-ya remained strong. With native cunning, he watched for a chance and escaped to his mountain stronghold. More and more in his heart, he was growing a strong hatred for the white man.

The children of the Yosemites scattered. They were unable to rally again around Chief Ten-a-ya, because the white horsemen pursued him into his mountain retreat. Day and night, signal fires burned upon the mountaintops.

When messengers from the White Father entered Yosemite Valley, they found it deserted. But five dark figures darted from trees to rocks at the base of the jagged spur of the northern rock wall of Yosemite Valley.

A swollen river lay between the enemy and the five Indian scouts. With this protection, the scouts came into the open and taunted the white strangers. Then the scouts disappeared up the mountain, leaving no trail visible for white men to follow. Later, however, false promises induced the five scouts to come again to the white men’s camp. Three of the scouts were sons of Ten-a-ya.

One brother was killed when he became a hostage. Another brother escaped only because of the bad aim of a white stranger.

Leaping Frog Rocks

When Ten-a-ya realized that it was useless to resist further, he surrendered to the messengers of the White Father in Washington. They had stolen his lands and his families, and they would not let the Yosemites live in peace in their homeland.

Ten-a-ya came down the mountain by his secret path from Le-ham-i- te, the canyon of the Arrowwood. His first sight was that of his oldest son’s dead body. He spoke no word. That night he secretly carried the young chief’s body to a sacred burial place.

Angered at the loss of his son, once more Ten-a-ya tried to escape and gather his tribe together, but he was captured a second time. In grief, he turned his bare chest toward his captors and cried:

“Kill me, White Chief, kill me as you have killed my sons and my people. You have brought sorrow to my heart and to the Yosemites. Kill me–and when I am dead, my spirit will rise up and call the spirits of our dead Yosemites to avenge the deaths you have caused. Our spirits will follow your footsteps forever.

“You will not see me or other Yosemites, but we will follow you wherever you go. You will know it is the spirit of Ten-a-ya and his people. You will come to fear us. Someday you will be sorry. This message is from our Great Spirit Above.”

Ten-a-ya’s prophecy came true. When the white men crossed the western mountains they encountered many problems and hardships because they had not made friends with the native people in the beginning. Yosemites scattered and never came together again as a tribe.Ten-a-ya was the last great Chief of the Yosemites.

Because the three sons of Ten-a-ya were captured at the base of the northern mountain wall, the three peaks were named to honour the “Three Brothers.” Because their posture still resembles the “Three Leaping Frogs,” they are also called Kom-po-pai-ses.

Origin of Yosemite

Long, long ago before the white man came to the West, a large happy tribe of peaceful Indians lived among the trees of beautiful Oak Canyon. This spectacular place is now known as Yosemite Valley, situated in Yosemite National Park, California.

In the beginning these peaceful Indians were called Ah-wah-nees, meaning “Deep Grass Valley,” which was the first name given to Yosemite Valley.

It is of interest to note that because of a printer’s error at a later date, the spelling of the tribe’s name was inadvertently changed to Yosemite. Now Yosemite National Park identifies the original home of the Ah-wah-nee band (Yosemite), southern division of the Miwok Tribe.

Today, the California State flag carries a picture of the grizzly bear as a reminder of the State’s official animal, Yo Semitee.

Ah-wah-nees were proud of their Chief, a tall and young athletic man. Early one spring morning, he started off with his spears in hand to hunt for trout in the nearby lake known as Sleeping Water.

Imagine his astonishment when he rounded a large boulder and came face to face with an enormous grizzly bear, probably just out of its winter hibernation!

Such an unexpected meeting caused both of them to rear back in stunned surprise. Immediately, however, all of the fighting spirit within each arose. They attacked one another furiously! The Chief realized his fighting power was not equal to the great strength of the grizzly.

“What can I do to help myself?” he wondered.

At that moment, he saw an oak limb within reach and grabbed it for a weapon.

“I must do everything possible to subdue this bear, even if it means my own death,” he thought while he fought. “I am determined that future Ah-wah-nee children will always remember the proud and brave blood that flowed in the veins of their ancestors.”

He pounded heavy blows, one after another, upon the head of the grizzly bear. In return, the young Chief received innumerable cuts from the bear’s teeth and claws. They exchanged blows that could have been death blows to either one, if each had not been determined to survive. The grizzly bear’s hunger drove him to attack; the Chief’s pride, courage, and great height strengthened his defense.

On and on they fought. Then when the Chief saw the eyes of the bear glaze with a cold stare, he knew his great moment had come. With his club raised overhead, the Chief brought down a whopping smash upon the head of the bear, who then slowly slumped to the ground. The Chief charged in to finish the task, making sure the grizzly bear was dead.

Exhausted, the young Chief withdrew a short way to rest, but kept his eyes upon the grizzly bear in case it revived. After some time, when he was certain of the bear’s death, the Chief stepped forward and skinned the animal.

Later, dragging the bearskin behind him, the Chief returned to his village and proclaimed his victory. Young and old braves gathered to welcome him and to praise his success. The young braves took off, following the trail where the bearskin dragged upon the ground. They found the grizzly bear before any other wild animal had a chance to claim it. Immediately, they set to work and butchered the bear and then carried the parts back to their camp.

In the meantime, the braves prepared a huge fire and sent young runners to the outlying camps, inviting all the people to an evening of feasting.

The victory of their young Chief over the enormous grizzly bear astounded all of the Ah-wah-nees. They cheered and cheered their admiration for their great Chief. They renamed their hero, Chief Yo Semitee, which means “Grizzly Bear.”

Following the feast, the entire tribe gathered for a victory dance, attired in all their fine beads and fine feathers. Chief Yo Semitee sat and overlooked the celebration, smoking the peace pipe with his tribal council. More feasting and dancing continued most of the night, as Ah-wah-nees showed their affection for their young and strong Chief.

Yo Semitee’s children, and finally all of the tribe, became known as Yo Semitees in honour of their brave Chief.


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