Land Essay

Reckoning, Healing: Tawonga’s Land & Thousands of Years of Gathering

Nestled in a secluded mountain oasis, with the middle fork of the Tuolumne River running through it, Tawonga has been a sacred gathering place for thousands of years. This mixed conifer Sierra forest, at 3,800 feet elevation, is home to majestic California black oaks, incense cedars, ponderosa pines and douglas fir.

On the land, we see evidence of Native peoples going back hundreds of generations, most notably the Central Sierra Miwok: countless bedrock mortars, the black oaks still producing acorns, and the bits of obsidian everywhere below your feet – carried from the volcanic Mono Lake basin to be flaked into tools and arrowheads. Unique carvings are found on giant boulders all around Camp’s location. We know that many great cultures preceded us on this land for thousands of years, and our challenge and hope is to honor them. This is complex work, and today, we wrestle deeply with this central question: how do we continue to engage with the history of Tawonga’s land in a way that honors Indigenous solidarity and ongoing local Indigenous sovereignty?


California was among the most densely populated areas in North America before European colonization. When settler-colonists came here (including the area around and including Tawonga we now call the Sierra foothills), they brought diseases, forced labor and genocide upon Indigenous peoples. Coastal Mewuk who escaped from Spanish Missions in California starting in the late 1700s initially found safe haven in the Sierra Mountains. However, during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, Indigenous peoples were attacked, killed and forced into labor by gold-seekers and state-sponsored militias.

During this time, according to Mewuk Elder, Sonny Hendricks, Tawonga’s land – at the time held by white colonist Colwell Owens Drew as Drew’s Ranch – continued to be a sanctuary. Over the years, the land passed through the hands of many people, including those of John Wesley Newsom. Newsom, a Black miner born in 1830 in North Carolina, was likely an enslaved person who bought his freedom with the gold he mined around the area we know as Camp in the late 1800s.

Fast Forward…

In 1925, leaders of the San Francisco Jewish community founded Camp Tawonga in our original Lake Tahoe location. Then, in 1952, the Columbia Park Boys Club of San Francisco purchased the Tuolumne County land (our current location) and developed it as a children’s summer camp. In 1964, Tawonga alumni who were campers in the 1920s (at the Tahoe site) bought the property, allowing us to continue the traditions of Tawonga at a location with a long history of gathering.

Reckoning with the History of the Land

Today, Tawonga is a refuge for our extended community of Jews and loved ones. However, our ability to create such a beautiful and connective community on this land is predicated on the erasure and displacement of Indigenous peoples. While historical evidence points to Tawonga’s location as a place of sanctuary for Indigenous peoples escaping the Spanish missions and settler colonialism, we also know that white settlers displaced Indigenous peoples when they arrived and claimed the land. Furthermore, Tawonga is also the largest organizational visitor to Yosemite National Park, where we send campers every summer for transformative, empowering wilderness experiences. Yosemite’s establishment forced the violent removal of the Ahwahnechee people, as part of a misguided white colonial project of making the land ‘pure’ and ‘safe’ from human impact. As Tawonga’s partnership with Yosemite is so integral to the camper experience, we reckon with this historical legacy.

Healing with Jewish Values

As the Tawonga community gathers, celebrates our cultures, connects with the land and renews our community bonds, we know our liberation is ultimately tied to the liberation of all. With awareness that we will not be able to heal the centuries of colonial violence in our lifetimes, we approach this work asking, how can we engage in three essential Jewish practices in order to move toward right relationships with Indigenous peoples ancestral to the Sierra:

  1. Pirkei Avot 2:16 – “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty
    to neglect it.” (Rabbi Tarfon)
  2. L’dor V’dor – “From generation to generation”
  3. Teshuvah – “Repair”

With these ancient guiding Jewish principles, we seek to honor the full history of the land we now call Tawonga – protecting the property and its artifacts, investigating how we can be in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, engaging our community in this work and respecting the history that is etched into the land.

How will this look on the ground? Campers are already exploring Indigenous land knowledge and Jewish values of land stewardship through Forest Tikkun programming, “repairing” the forest. Beginning in spring 2022 with our updated Gold Rush program, children will learn a history of the Sierra Foothills that more accurately acknowledges the Indigenous experience. Additionally, in the summer, campers will explore their own ancestry as a means of understanding the temporary nature of our time on earth and how many of us have benefited from settler colonialism. In so doing, together we will continue to steward the land we call Tawonga with deeper awareness for and respect of Indigenous Peoples.

For additional reading, please see our Land Acknowledgement.

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