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Professor Curates Yosemite Anniversary Exhibit

Posted: Jul 7, 2014

Jen A. Huntley at CHS Image

Jen A. Huntley, guest historical curator for "Yosemite: A Storied Landscape," stands in front of the California Historical Society Gallery in San Francisco, June 2014.

Jen A. Huntley, Associate Professor of Humanities at Truckee Meadows Community College, is guest historical curator for the California Historical Society (CHS) exhibit in celebration of the Yosemite grant sesquicentennial.

The exhibit, “Yosemite: A Storied Landscape,” will be on display from June 29 until January 2015 at the CHS in San Francisco, 678 Mission St. Additional events include a historian’s talk given by Huntley at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 10, and an evening with an archivist at 5-6 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 19.

Huntley's book, “The Making of Yosemite,” is now available in paperback.

“Yosemite is a place where people have worked and lived for centuries, and yet most of our books and movies concentrate only on the landscape — people have been somehow perceived as the problem,” said Huntley. “We should appreciate that Yosemite is a landscape of people and celebrate that human quality of its history.”

Stories inspire interest in the 150th anniversary of Yosemite

Huntley has taught the Core Humanities sequence at TMCC for two years, and courses in environmental history and the West at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“My colleague Bill Rowley, of the UNR History department, and I designed a field-based seminar on Yosemite history,” Huntley said. “That experience gave me ideas about ways to use artifacts and stories to teach history.”

Among the stories featured in the CHS exhibit is the experience of Japanese artist Chiura Obata in Yosemite. Trained in the traditional art of Ukiyo-e, Obata immigrated to California in the early twentieth century and found inspiration in Yosemite’s landscapes. His woodblock prints gained critical acclaim, and he joined the art faculty at UC Berkeley.

When Executive Order 9066 demanded the internment of all Japanese citizens during WWII, Berkeley’s Provost requested that Obata be allowed to serve this time in Yosemite. The request was denied. He was able to go back to his teaching position at Berkeley following the war, but the Tokyo print shop that housed all of his original carved wood blocks was bombed. Examples of Obata’s Yosemite artwork are on display at the CHS exhibit, and a guest speaker will focus on his story at 6-8 p.m. on Thurs., July 24.

Little known facts give a more complete picture of Sierra history

John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, is often idealized, but historians now believe he may have been mistaken in some of his assumptions, Huntley said.

For example, from the 1860s to the 1930s, shepherds, including Basque immigrants, conducted annual burning of the forest understory in the mountains as part of their seasonal rounds. This technique continued the traditional practices of Sierra Native Americans, and provided several benefits that included preventing animal predators from being hidden, encouraging the growth of forage, and facilitating travel through rough terrain with their herds.

However, to scientists and naturalists trained at Eastern universities, these practices appeared purely destructive. Professional foresters, as well as John Muir, advocated for federal protection of Yosemite. Muir called sheep “hoofed locusts,” Huntley said.

In 2014, it is widely known that controlled burns are common practice in preventing catastrophic forest fires, such as last summer’s Rim Fire.

James Mason Hutchings was an intriguing character of Yosemite

James Mason Hutchings is the subject of Huntley’s book. Hutchings was the first person to bring Yosemite to public attention, and moved to the valley to run a hotel and other tourist services in 1864, just before Congress passed the Yosemite Grant Act. Because he challenged the legality of the grant in court, he has been cast as an enemy of the National Park idea, although a closer look at his life story shows he promoted the region.

Among Hutchings’ many promotional activities was encouraging women tourists to “ride astride,” rather than the fashionable “side-saddle.” As the manager of a stable of horses for tourists to ride the last stretch into the valley from Tamarack Flat, Hutchings kept “split skirts” for ladies to ride “astride” on a horse or mule, Huntley said.

“The last word was prompted by remembering the raw back of the beautiful horse which carried Miss (Dorothea) Dix into the valley, under the old, conventional side-saddle,” Hutchings wrote in a tourist guide. “The lady is, unquestionably, a noted philanthropist, but that poor horse probably never suspected it.”

He continues, “Anna Dickinson rode in man-fashion, arrived fresh and strong, and so did her horse. Ask her animal if he wants to carry that lady again, and he’ll never say nay (neigh).”

Yosemite National Park is an icon of the West, and of the U.S.

“What’s important about the West is our iconic landscape, and Yosemite was the first time the U.S. government set land aside to be free from mining, agriculture and lumbering; to be a scenic park for all,” Huntley said. “Yosemite is a key to western identity, and to American identity.”

The first part of the park to be protected in this way was the Yosemite Valley, the rim around the valley and ancient sequoia groves. It was 1864, the height of the Civil War, when the federal government turned management of this area over to the state of California. In the 1890s, the high country surrounding the valley, rim and groves was added, and these new areas were designated as a national park.

In 1905, the valley and rim became incorporated into the entire national park, and Yosemite formed the shape that is known today. Stories of Yosemite which comprise the CHS exhibit present a wide-ranging perspective and a look at long-term impacts of the Yosemite Grant.

For more information about “Yosemite: A Storied Landscape,” visit the CHS website at www.californiahistoricalsociety.org. The exhibit is on display until January, 2015. For individuals and organizations interested in learning more about the history of Yosemite, Huntley may be contacted for information or as a meeting presenter: 775-673-7802 or jhuntley@tmcc.edu.



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