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The Legend of Tis-sa-ack

Half Dome, the famous granite face in Yosemite National Park, was not always called by that name.

By: Aaron Rickel Jones + Save to a List

It’s been a long-time goal of mine to climb the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (5.9 C1). I’ve hiked to the top twice, and the second time I swore the next time I stood on top it would be after getting up the hard way. We have a large Half Dome climbing map on our wall. I have a half dome outline tattooed on my left wrist, though it looks more like a shark fin than Half Dome.

Needless to say, I’m mildly obsessed with this particular rock. I recently stumbled upon the Mewuk legend of Tis-sa-ack, Half Dome’s original name, quoted here from an account transcribed by Katherine Ames Taylor in 1926:

Long, long ago, before the Great Spirit had brought people to Ahwahnee*, a First Being**, called Tis-sa-ack and her husband, Nangas, left the plains of the Merced Valley to cross the high mountains before them. Weary from long days of climbing, and laden with burdens, they reached Ahwahnee at last, parched for water. It had been many days now since they had tasted water, and eagerly they stumbled on to Ah-wei-ya, or Mirror Lake, where they would refresh themselves.

* Miwok name for Yosemite Valley

** According to Miwok mythology, First People were mystical beings who inhabited the country for a long period before humankind was created. The myths of the Miwok tribes abound in magic, and tell of the doings of the First People.

Tis-sa-ack, arriving first, set her papoose in its basket on the ground beside her, and, bending over, drank thirstily from the lake. Again and again she filled her basket and drank deeply from it. So great was her thirst that by the time her husband arrived not a basketful of water remained.

In great anger, Nangas turned upon his wife and began to beat her. Tis-sa-ack, in fright, ran from him, but he pursued her, striking her as he ran. At last, in pain and humiliation, Tis-sa-ack turned upon her husband, and threw her basket at him.

The Great Spirit, angered by all this tumult in his peaceful Ahwahnee, straightway turned them all into stone. Nangas became Washington Column and North Dome. The upturned basket became Basket Dome. The forgotten papoose in his basket, became the Royal Arches, while Tis-sa-ack herself became that great monument, Half Dome, which is still streaked with the tears which streamed down her face at her husband’s beating.

Names tell stories, and Half Dome, in my humble opinion, tells a pretty boring story. There used to be a whole dome, then glaciers carved out the granite during the ice ages, and now there is only half a dome left. Half Dome reinforces a human-centric lens on the world, describing a singularly unique granite outcropping with achingly dull scientific language. A simple answer to a simple question. Half Dome is a (stunning and gorgeous) rock out in nature you can buy a ticket to, take a picture of, or climb to the top of and check off a list.

Tis-sa-ack tells a more nuanced story. She invites us into a story bigger than, and inclusive of, ourselves.

Tis-sa-ack is us—consumers who fill our baskets again and again, drinking deeply until there is nothing left. We are all Tis-sa-ack. We have all committed irreversible wrongs against one another, against the planet, and against ourselves. Blinded by our thirst, we unknowingly drink the proverbial lake dry again and again. I don’t believe Tis-sa-ack realized the consequences of her actions—that is to say, I don’t believe her crime was premeditated. I believe she was simply following her desire to its natural end. Aren’t we all?

We are all also Nangas, quickly driven to righteous anger—or at least anger we convince ourselves is righteous. He falls victim to the same ancient blame-game we all still play—how could Tis-sa-ack be so selfish as to drain an entire lake? It’s the same old question. Who is to say Nangas would have acted differently if he’d been first to arrive at the lake? Was it righteousness or his own thirst which drove Nangas to attack his beloved?

Tis-sa-ack is a story with more questions than answers. We are left guessing at motivation, guilt, blame, and punishment, but isn’t that how it always goes? Isn’t that a more accurate description of life as we all know it? I believe stories like these invite us into self-reflection for a reason. We have all taken more than we need—sometimes blindly, but many times in full recognition of our greed. We have all blamed and punished others for acting out of selfishness, knowing full well we act out of selfishness ourselves nearly every opportunity we get.

I still call Tis-sa-ack Half Dome out of colloquial ease. I think it is an okay nickname, but a nickname should be used only after we have taken time to learn a being's real name. I think more people, myself included, should learn the true names, stories, mythologies, and origins behind the places they love. Often, those true names and stories cause us to pause and consider the roles we each play in the grand story—a story we seem to be tragically forgetting more quickly than ever.

I dream that one day, visitors to the Ahwahnee Valley will take a day hike to the top of Tis-sa-ack and recall how once, long ago, Tis-sa-ack and the Ahwahnee nearly had their names erased from history. It is us, here and now, who have both the power and the responsibility to ensure they are not forgotten.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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