Yosemite Half Dome: The Legend of Tissayack
This story was first published in the March 2017 edition of First Nation's Focus.
YOSEMITE — Yosemite’s most distinctive monument, Half Dome, dominates most Valley views. Standing at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome rises to an elevation of 8,842 feet.
At 87 million years old, the type of granite making up the dome is the youngest plutonic rock in the Valley. (Plutonic rock is formed beneath the earth’s surface by intense heat, pressure and slow cooling.) The remaining portions of granite on Half Dome’s face are believed to have sheered off during its cooling phase 100 million years ago, deep under the Pacific seabed. Succeeding glaciers deposited some of the debris in moraines along the Valley floor.
Here is the Legend of Tissayack, the legend of Half Dome:
Many, many generations ago, long before the Creator had completed the fashioning of the magnificent cliffs in the Valley of Ahwahnee, there dwelt in the arid desert around Mono Lake an Indian couple. Learning from other Indians of the beautiful and fertile Valley of Ahwahnee, they decided to go there and make it their dwelling place. They began their journey into the Sierra Nevada toward Yosemite Valley, he carrying deer skins, and she holding a baby cradle in her arms and carrying a (wono) basket on her back. When the couple reached the site of present-day Mirror Lake, they began to quarrel. She wanted to go back to Mono Lake, but he refused, saying that no oaks or other trees grew there. He would not listen to her when she said she would plant seeds.
In despair, the girl began to cry and ran back toward the Paiute homeland of Mono Lake. Her husband grew angry and ran after her. To escape she threw the wono basket at him and it became Basket Dome. She continued running and threw the baby cradle at her husband. Today, we experience it as the Royal Arches. Because they had brought anger into Yosemite, the Creator became upset at the couple. The Creator in his anger turned the two into stone. He became North Dome and she became what we know as Half Dome. The Mono Lake Paiute girl regretted the quarrel and the rock wall she became, Half Dome, began to cry, thus forming Mirror Lake.
Today, you can still see the marks of those tears as they run down her face. And if you look very carefully at Half Dome, you can see it is fashioned after the way the Mono tribe looked, hair bobbed and cut in bangs. Her rock face stained with tears facing eastward towards their ancient homeland of Mono Lake. In olden times the first white explorers called her South Dome, later Half Dome, but in Paiute she is known as T’ssiyakka or the English pronunciation Tissayack.
For decades many historians have scratched their heads to the meaning of Tissayack.
Mistakenly they kept asking Mariposa Indians also known as Miwoks believing them to be the original Yosemite Indians and tellers of the legend, but if they had asked Paiutes in the area they would have translated it for them.
T’ssiyakka means “crying girl” or in Paiute “girl-cry,” which fits the legend of Half Dome and not the “Legends of the Yosemite Miwoks” of the girl turned to stone with tears running down her face.