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Tenaya Stone Spa Incorporates Native American Influences Into Story and Design at Disney’s Grand Californian Resort & Spa

The Tenaya Stone Spa opened recently at Disney’s Grand Californian Resort & Spa, and we were fortunate enough to take a look around the lobby to see some of the new furnishings and merchandise that is available. Among the chandelier made of old tree roots, the agate-laden doors, and the floor made of cut log rounds, there is one message hung on a plaque outside the door that is easy to miss in the excitement of heading in for a treatment.

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This plaque honors the local Native American tribes whose land we now live on, from the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation who made their home in Orange and San Diego Counties, to the Gabrieleño Tongva and Fernandeño Tataviam of Los Angeles County, to the Ventureño Chumash of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. This message is an important part of the overall design and story of the new Tenaya Stone Spa.

Tenaya Stone Spa was designed around the landscape of the Yosemite Valley, and the natural forms are evident in the furnishings of the spa. The carpet in the relaxation lounge, pictured below, is modeled from a photo taken near Tenaya Lake. But a unique factor of the design and the storytelling of the spa experience is that Disney had input from not only their own Native American cultural advisor on staff, but also from the Ahwahnechee Miwok people.

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Disney Parks Blog recently featured an interview with Dawn Jackson, Native American cultural advisor at Disney and member of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan. Jackson worked with Art Director Katrina Mosher at Walt Disney Imagineering to bring a Native voice to the feel and the story of the spa. Through tribal contacts and friends, Jackson met with the direct descendants of Chief Tenaya in researching the project and gathering input for what would become the Tenaya Stone Spa.

Tenaya Stone Spa is named in honor of Chief Tenaya, leader of the Ahwahnechee people and the last chief to live in Yosemite Valley. Tenaya can also be translated as “to dream.” In their Northern Paiute language, Awooni is the word for the valley we now know as Yosemite, awo meaning mouth, and ni meaning large. This “large mouth” was what the valley walls looked like from their home in the village of Ahwahnee, about a half-mile West of present-day Yosemite Village. Unlike many tribes who refer to themselves as “the people” in their native languages, the Ahwahnechee are the “dwellers of Ahwahnee.” When soldiers asked the nearby Miwok tribe about their neighbors in the valley, they responded that they were Yohhe’meti,  “those who kill,” which is the Miwok word for a hated enemy. Yosemite, which became associated with the valley and the Ahwahnechee people, is an Anglicized version of this Miwok word for their feared neighboring tribe.

Despite the ominous name, the Ahwahnechee were a proud people beset by hard times as white settlers and miners encroached on their homeland. Chief Tenaya led his people through hardship, disease, and resettlement until his death in 1853, and his name is tied to the land he once presided over in the form of Tenaya Lake, Creek, and Canyon.

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“In my tribe, a life well lived means it is in balance in four areas of one’s life: social, spiritual, emotional and physical,” Jackson told Disney Parks Blog.

This concept of the four directions in balance is repeated over and over in the design of the spa. There are four main colors in the interior design palette (white, red, black, yellow). Four indigenous medicinal plants (sweetgrass, sage, cedar, tobacco) are used in aromatherapy. Special signifiers are placed to mark the four cardinal directions within the spa. And four stones greet guests in a bowl just before they enter the spa’s doors — white magnesite, red pumice, black obsidian, gold pyrite — which once again reinforce the color scheme and hold significance to Native Californian tribes. For instance, white magnesite was used by some tribes as currency. And obsidian from the Mono Lake region of Northern California, near Yosemite Valley, was among the most prized raw obsidian in America for its quality and reusability in arrowhead making, and Mono Lake obsidian has been found all across the country, as far away as New York and Maine, as carried from one tribe to the next via trade routes.

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The spa’s music features a Native American singer, which was selected to pay homage to indigenous musical stylings. And in the center of the spa, beyond the doors that we could not pass on our brief tour, is the Tenaya Stone itself — a stone gifted from the descendants of Chief Tenaya to be housed as the centerpiece of the spa. The Stone is pictured above with Dawn Jackson and Imagineer Katrina Mosher.

“In my Native community, one of the most respectful things you can say to someone is ‘you did it in a good way,” Jackson told Disney Parks Blog. “It means you did it with a pure heart and the right intentions and approached it with respect. That’s the best compliment you can give, and I want Disney to continue to do things in a good way.”

Tenaya Stone Spa is currently open to resort guests only and will open to visitors in the future when conditions allow.

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