Yosemite: What’s in a name?

When Yosemite National Park announced earlier this month that it planned to change the names of some of its most iconic places in response to a lawsuit, the public was outraged.

The park’s departing concessionaire, Delaware North Companies, has trademarked historic names like Ahwahnee and Wawona and now demands payment for their use, even though the names predate the company’s tenure.

Delaware North has concession contracts in nine other parks, including Grand Canyon, Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Yellowstone, and has trademarked names associated with those venues as well. It has gone so far as to file a trademark application for “Space Shuttle Atlantis.”

It’s hard to read the Yosemite move as anything other than retaliation for losing the concessions contract, worth $2 billion over its life, to another company.


Critics call it a clear case of privatizing a public good, a violation of the public trust and just plain mean spirited. “Delaware North is essentially extorting taxpayers to allow Americans to keep what we already own,” wrote one.

“The idea that a distant corporation could appropriate these names is terrible,” said another.

Park officials estimate it could cost well over $1 million to change all the park signs and promotional materials. They say they were forced into the move to avoid trademark infringement.

Delaware North, which assumed the Yosemite contract in 1993, claims the trademarked names are worth $44 million, a figure the Justice Department calls “wildly inflated.” The National Park Service says they are worth no more than $1.63 million. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Clearly, the park is big business and the names valuable commodities.

What difference does a name make? Well, let’s consider that. Under the Park Service plan, the poetic Ahwahnee would become the clunky Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Really? Ouch. Gee, why not Best Exotic Yosemite Hotel?


What’s in a name? Lots of history, for one thing.

Ahwahnee, which means “grassy mouth” in Southern Sierra Miwok, is what the mixed band of native people who lived in Yosemite Valley called it. They called themselves the Ahwahneechee, “people of the grassy mouth.”

When members of the Mariposa (“Butterfly”) Battalion “discovered” the valley in 1851, they were on a mission to round up Indians and move them to a reservation in the Central Valley. (Now that is an infringement.)

One member of the battalion, Lafayette Bunnell, suggested the valley be called Yosemite, which he thought meant “grizzly bear.” The battalion’s leader, a man called Major Savage (I’m not making this up), mistranslated the word for Bunnell.

The “grizzly bear” mistake persisted until the 1950s, when linguists and anthropologists got around to asking the native people what the word means. Lo and behold, it actually means “killers” or “some of them are killers.” Welcome to Killers National Park! Enjoy your stay!


Apparently, “yosemite” is how Indians outside the valley referred to the Ahwahneechee, who have never stopped trying to reoccupy the park.

When the Best Exotic Majestic Ahwahnee Hotel was built, the native people lived nearby in squalor in what was referred to as Indian Village. Eventually, park officials decided the village was an eyesore and started a series of evictions that continued well into the 1960s. Today, native people must negotiate with park managers to use any resources.

This pattern is not unique to Yosemite. It has played out, is still playing out, in places like Yellowstone and Death Valley National Park.

Don’t get me wrong. I think what Delaware North is doing is reprehensible. But when park managers and supporters say these names belong to the public, they should recognize exactly how the American people acquired them.

Our acquisitions were part of a century-long dispossession of native peoples fueled by Manifest Destiny. Delaware North’s effort is just the latest in a series of seizures and appropriations.


If you’re still not sure what white privilege is, this is it: White institutions tussling over lucrative “property,” real and intellectual, taken at gunpoint from native peoples who have never seen so much as a pittance in compensation or royalties.

The name for that is “wrong.”