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More Than Just a Name Change

Guest column by Marcia Penner Freedman —

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
— William Shakespeare

Juliet stands on her balcony speaking into the night. She wants Romeo to deny thy father and replace thy name. She offers to no longer be a Capulet. Juliet is a naïve teenager. She has no grasp on the significance of her name, how it anchors her to her past and to her ancestors. How it informs the present. Tragically she will not live long enough to learn this life lesson and won’t have a chance to renege on her cavalier decision to drop her family name.

The National Park Service (NPS) has made some unfortunate name changes in Yosemite Valley recently, and one wonders whether this was done cavalierly. Those who chose the names are not naïve. They are sophisticated players in a long and complicated story involving the NPS, DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite (the outgoing concessionaire for the Park), Yosemite Hospitality, LLC (the incoming concessionaire), contracts, clandestine trademarks, billions of dollars, and, of course, law suits. So you would imagine that they chose the names with care, which is all the more puzzling. While this does not qualify as Shakespearean tragedy, there is some concern when one considers that several of the new names, in effect, obliterate history and distort reality.

Take the new name for the Ahwahnee Hotel – Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Where did that name come from? The Ahwahnee was never meant to be majestic. It was designed to blend into the environment, to act as a backdrop for the real majesty in the Valley: Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, the towering cliffs of granite. Calling the hotel ‘majestic’ is a distortion and denies the history behind its construction.

Another problem, and perhaps one of greater significance is that, with the name change has come the purging of one of the original inhabitants of Yosemite Valley. The Southern Sierra Miwok, a.k.a. Ahwahneechee, lived in Yosemite Valley at the site of the Ahwahnee Hotel for thousands of years. There is a reconstructed Miwok village at the Visitor’s Center that honors their connection to the Valley. It is used to this day for ceremonies and special gatherings. At the museum, Miwok basket weavers demonstrate and teach their art. Eliminating reference to their name degrades their presence in the Valley to quaintness, in effect, reducing them to a remnant of the past.

Another problematic name change is the switch from Curry Village to Half Dome Village. This not only constitutes a spin on reality, but involves a negation of history. Curry Village, originally called Camp Curry, was established in 1899 by the Curry family. The name Curry permeates the story of Yosemite Valley. The family not only established Camp Curry, but managed the concessions until the 1990s. They were responsible for the building of and the naming of the Ahwahnee Hotel in the 1920s. Their preservation of the old registration office – now serving as a lounge for visitors to Curry Village – and other historic structures, brought about the designation of Curry Village on the National Historic Landmark register as the Camp Curry Historic District.

So what does half dome have to do with Curry Village, except that it serves the guests with a spectacular view? Only a small percentage of the people who stay at Curry Village will hike half dome. In fact, using the name half dome is unfair. Most of the people will never climb one of the most coveted hikes in the Valley. That name will be a constant reminder of this.

So, here we are. And what can we expect as we look into the future? After the hullaballoo surrounding the name changes dies down, amnesia will set it. People will continue to come to the Valley. Continue to spend their millions. Perhaps a few new coffee table books will appear recounting the picturesque history of the Majestic Yosemite Hotel and Half Dome Village. Perhaps the rangers will organize interpretive walks and talks for Valley visitors. Possibly the new concessionaire will decide to upgrade the irrelevant Native American décor of the Majestic to more accurately reflect its name. The large photos of David and Jenny Curry that hang in the lounge at Half Dome Village are sure to be removed. Without reference to their name, they are irrelevant. Will they be replaced by photos of half dome? Who needs more photos of half dome?

When Juliet remarked that by any other name the rose would still smell as sweet, that’s probably because she’d never been pricked by one of its thorns. But we, the American public, have been pricked, once again, by the thorn of corporate shenanigans. We are left with a skewed sense of place and of history, and we are being asked to pay the price of forgetfulness. Is it too late for the National Park Service to rethink these name changes? Is it too late for them to renege on their decision?

Marcia Penner Freedman is the author of Willow Creek History: Tales of Cow Camps; Shake Makers and Basket Weavers; and Fighting Fire in the Sierra National Forest. She is a board member of the Coarsegold Resource Conservation District.

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