Rocks and Stories

The deepest canyon in the red desert is on Main Street in Moab, and is called Back of Beyond Books. On a recent wet and snow-filled climbing trip to Moab I got lost in it's labyrinths. Hours evaporated as I poured over the contours of American history, explored the canyons of ideas from which our current environmental movement are downstream. Far up some yellow side canyon I found a curious portal to another time and geography, a pamphlet from 1941 called Yosemite Indians, Yesterday and Today, whose purpose was, “to disseminate information regarding the natural history and scientific features of [Yosemite].” The work is a dense anthropological and historical account of the forcible removal of the Ahwahneeche people from the valley by the Mariposa Battalion in 1852, elements of their culture before that removal, and elements of their culture during the time of publication.

The element I want to elevate here is the section entitled “Indian Legends”. Why? Because they are stories that pertain to the most central aesthetic elements of Yosemite in the Western American mind: the rock. That is, the Legend of El Capitan, the Legend of The Lost Arrow, and the Legend of Half Dome. I also want to note that these stories should not be taken as untrue. They are tales for which there will never be clear evidence for their empirical truth or untruth, and to quarrel with that question is to miss the point entirely. Further, I have no knowledge of the standpoint of the original author, Elizabeth H. Godfrey, though she does not seem to be of Ahwahneeche descent.

There is deep wisdom in these stories. One left me in tears. I hope that in the name of recognition justice we may someday adopt the appropriate names, if that is what the remaining Ahwahneeches would like: Totokonlah, Hummoo, and Tissaack.

The Legend of Totokonlah (El Capitan)

Long, long ago there lived in the Valley of Ah-wahnee two bear cubs. One hot day they slipped away from their mother and went down to the river for a swim. When they came out of the water, they were so tired that they lay down to rest on an immense, flat boulder, and fell asleep. While they slumbered, the huge rock began to slowly rise until at length it towered into the blue sky far above the treetops, and wooly, white clouds fell over the sleeping cubs like fleecy coverlets.

In vain did the distracted mother bear search for her two cubs, and although she questioned every animal in the valley, not one could give her a clue as to what had happened to them. At last To-tah-kan, the sharp-eyed crane, discovered them still asleep on the top of the great rock. Then the mother bear became more anxious than ever lest her cubs should awaken, and feel so frightened upon finding themselves up near the blue sky that they would jump off and be killed.

All the other animals in the valley felt sorry for the mother bear and promised to help rescue the cubs. Gathering together, each attempted to climb the great rock, but it was as slippery as glass, and their feet would not hold. Little field mouse climbed two feet, and became frightened; the rat fell backward and lost hold after three feet; the fox when a bit higher, but it was no use. The larger animals could not do much better, although they tried so hard that to this day one can see the dark scratches of their feet at the base of the rock.

When all had given up, along came the tiny inch worm.

“I believe I can climb up to the top and bring down the cubs,” it courageously announced.

Of course, the other animals all sneered and made sport of this boast from the one of the most insignificant of their number, but the inch worm paid no attention to their insults and immediately began the perilous ascent. “Too-tack, too-tack, to-to-kon-oo-lah,” it chanted, and surely enough it's feed clung even to that polished surface. Higher and higher it went, until the animals below began to realize that the inch worm was not so stupid after all. Midway the great rock flared and the inch worm clung at a dizzy height only by its front feet.

Continuing to chant it's song, the frightened inch worm managed to twist it's body and to take a zig-zag course, which made the climb a great deal longer, but much safer. Weak and exhausted it at last reached the top of the great rock, and in some miraculous manner awakened the cubs and guided them safely down to their grief-stricken mother. Of course, the whole animal kingdom was delighted and overjoyed with the return of the cubs and the praises of the inch worm were loudly sung by all. As a token of honor the animals decided to name the great rock “Totokonlah” in honor of the inch worm.

The Legend of Hummoo (The Lost Arrow)

Tee-hee-neh, a beautiful Indian maid, was betrothed to Kos-soo-kah, a young brave, who was fearless and brol with his spear and bow. At dawn on the day before their marriage, Kossookah made ready with other strong braves to go forth into the mountains to hunt bear, deer, rabbit, and grouse for the wedding feast. Before leaving, he slipped away from the other hunters to meet Teeheeneh.

As they parted Kossookah said, “We’ll go hunt now, but at the end of the day I will shoot an arrow from the cliff between Cholook (the high fall) and Lehamite (the canyon of the Arrowood and by the number of features you will know what kill has been made.”

Teeheeneh happily assisted the Indian women in preparing acord bread and other food for the marriage celebration until the appointed time when she was to wait at the foot of the high fall for the arrow message from Kossookah. Hour after hour she waited until gradually the joy she had known was replaced with fear and concern for her lover’s safety. At last, unable to bear her anguish longer, she decided to climb the rugged and difficult trail that led to the top of the cliff. “Kossookah,” she called again and again, but the only answer was the faint echoing of her own voice. Breathless, frightened, and her heart heavy with a dreaded fear that Kossookah had met with harm, she at last reached the summit. Seeing footprints in the direction of the cliff, she moved toward the edge in bewildered alarm, not for her own safety, but for what she might behold. As she leaned over and looked down, she gave a piercing cry of despair, for in the starlight she beheld the still form of her loved one lying on a ledge below with the spent bow in his hand. She now remembered that at the hour of sunset while she stood waiting for Kossookah’s arrow to fall she had heard the distant, thunder-like rumble of a rock slide. Her despair was almost overwhelming as she realized that while her faithful Kossookah stood on the edge of the cliff to draw his bow, he had been caught in the unexpected slide of the Earth that had hurled him to his doom.

A faint hope stirred in Teeheeneh’s heart. Perhaps Kossookah was still alive. To summon assistance as quickly as possible, she frantically collected cones and dead limbs to light a signal fire for urgent help. Although numbed with grief, she kept the fire bright and high for several hours before folks from the valley and other braves who were returning from the hunt in the high country were able to reach her. Quickly, the braves made a pole from lengths of tamarack and fastened them securely with thongs of hide from the deer that had been killed for the marriage feast. Although exhausted, Teeheenah was the first to descend to the ledge where Kossookah lay. As she knelt beside him and listened for breath, her own heartbeat almost stopped, for Kossookah was cold and still. Without a murmur, she motioned for the men above to lift her.

Teeheeneh’s wedding day had dawned when the braves were at last successful in raising the body of Kossookah to the top of the cliff where the others waited. As his lifeless form was placed gently on the ground, Teeheeneh knelt beside him and with tears streaming down her cheeks, she repeated his name over and over, as though by doing so she could call him back to her. Suddenly, she fell forward on her fear one’s breast, and her spirit too departed to join that of Kossookah in the land that knows no partings.

With great wailing and mourning the two lovers and all their belongings were placed for cremation on the funeral pyre in accordance with the burial custom. In Kossookah’s hand was the fatal bow, but the arrow had been lost forever. In its stead the spirits lodged a pointed columb of rock in the cliff between Cholook and Lehamite in memory of the faithful Kossookah who met his death in keeping a promise to Teeheeneh. Ever since, this rock has been known as Hummoo, the Lost Arrow.

The Legend of Tissaack (Half Dome)

Many, many generations ago, long before the Gods had complete the fashioning of the magnificent cliffs in the Valley of Ahwahnee, their dwelt far off in arid plains an Indian woman by the name Tis-sa-ack and her husband Nangas. Learning from other Indians of the beautiful and fertile Valley of Ahwahnee, they decided to go there and make it their dwelling place. Their journey led them over rugged terrain, steep canyons and through dense forests. Tissaack carried on her back a heavy burden basket containing acorns and other articles, as well as a papoose carrier, or hickey. Nangas followed at a short distance carrying his bow, arrow, and a rude staff.

After days and days of weary traveling, they at last entered the beautiful Valley of Ahwahnee. Nangas being tired, hungry and very thirsty, lost his temper, and without good reason he struck Tissaack a sharp blow across the shoulders with his staff. Since it was contrary to custom for an Indian to mistreat his wife, Tissaack became terrified and ran eastward from her husband.

As she went, the Gods looking down, caused the path she took to become the course of a stream, and the acorns that dropped from her burden basket to spring up into stalwart oaks. At length, Tissaack reached Mirror Lake, and so great was her thirst that she drank every drop of the cool, quiet water.

When Nangas caught up with Tissaack, and saw that there was no water left to quench his thirst, his anger knew no bounds, and again he struck her with his staff. Tissaack again ran from him, but he pursued her and continued to beat her. Looking down on them, the Gods were sorely displeased.

“Tissaack and Nangas have broken the spell of peace,” they said. “Let us transform them into cliffs of granite that face each other, so that they will be forever parted.”

Tissaack as she fled tossed aside the heavy burden basket to enable her to run faster, and landing upside down it immediately became Basket Dome; next she threw the papoose carrier, or hickey, to the north wall of the canyon, and it became Royal Arches. Nangas was then changed into Washington Column, and Tissaack into Half Dome. The dark streaks that still mar the face of the stupendous cliff represent the tears that Tissaack shed as she ran from her angry husband.