Disneyland Resort opens a new Native American-inspired spa, but there's a history to the name

A Tenaya Stone, gifted by a Miwok elder descended of Chief Tenaya of the Yosemite Valley, is a focal point and place for guests to set their intentions at Disneyland Resort's Tenaya Stone Spa.
Eve Chen
  • Tenaya Stone Spa at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is "inspired by the spirit of nature, Indigenous cultures of California and design principles of the Arts & Crafts movement."
  • Dawn Jackson, a Native American cultural advisor with Disney, connected with a Miwok family descended from Chief Tenaya, one of the last chiefs of the Yosemite Valley.
  • Tara Fouch-Moore, tribal secretary for Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, says she's also a descendant of Chief Tenaya and appreciates the spa trying to be culturally representative. "However they miss the point."

Just days after Lake Tahoe's Squaw Valley ski resort rebranded itself as Palisades Tahoe in recognition of the "derogatory and offensive"connotations of its former name, a new destination with Native American influences debuted Thursday at Disneyland Resort. 

Tenaya Stone Spa at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is "inspired by the spirit of nature, Indigenous cultures of California and design principles of the Arts & Crafts movement," according to Disney Parks.

"A huge reason we chose to lean into incorporating Native inspiration was to honor the spirit of nature," Katrina Mosher, art director with Walt Disney Imagineering, told USA TODAY. "The universal thinking in Native values are similar, if not one in the same, as craftsman values and intentions. The idea of self-care, taking care of the Earth, and taking care of our community were all values we set out to achieve with this space. It was a natural fit and an important acknowledgment." 

Dawn Jackson, a Native American cultural adviser with Disney, who was an Imagineer with the Story Development team at the project's onset, was brought in early on.

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"I was so appreciative because we've all seen stories out there that the Native Indigenous population is invisible," Jackson said. "So that really told me the intention was right. There was a pureness to the question."

"We knew that we wanted to do it the right way," Mosher said.

Over the years, Disney has been criticized for its depictions of Native Americans in films like "Peter Pan" and "Pocahontas." Disneyland and Disney World recently removed racially insensitive depictions of Indigenous people from their Jungle Cruise attractions.

The parks are also making other changes when it comes to the representation of marginalized communities, like replacing Splash Mountain's "Song of the South"-related theme with a new storyline featuring Princess Tiana of "The Princess and the Frog."

Tenaya Stone Spa at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa draws inspiration from nature, Native cultures and Craftsman  style.

Jackson, who is Saginaw Chippewa from Michigan, said thatwhile she's done a lot of work with Southern California tribes, she didn't know much about the tribes of the Yosemite Valley, the thematic backdrop of the spa, which borders the Grizzly Peak area of Disney California Adventure Park.

"So that was the next part of the journey, really reaching out to elders, people I knew, colleagues, and asking: 'What tribes do I need to think about? How do I need to increase my own knowledge and respect for those cultures?' " she said.

"I met with Pomo, Paiute, Wintun, Miwok, just in California alone," Jackson said, adding, "It was always about learning from them, their cultural knowledge."

'The story of Chief Tenaya is not a children's story'

Tenaya had already been chosen as the spa's name when the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian connected Jackson with a Miwok family descended from Chief Tenaya, one of the last chiefs of the Yosemite Valley. 

"Tenaya can be interpreted 'to dream' in the Indigenous culture of the Yosemite Valley," Jackson told the Disney Parks blog. Learning of the family's connection to Chief Tenaya, Jackson told USA TODAY, " ... felt like this was the journey we were meant to be on."

She visited the family in person to pay respects, break bread and begin a relationship that eventually led to a gift from a Miwok elder: the stone that now sits at the heart of the spa, which guests are invited to touch.

Tara Fouch-Moore, tribal secretary for Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, one of the tribes that called Yosemite Valley home, says she's also a descendant of Chief Tenaya and appreciates the spa trying to be culturally representative.

"However, they miss the point," she said. "They are not doing this with the intention of educating the public on the tragic story of Chief Tenaya and his people. The story of Chief Tenaya is not a children's story. It includes the genocide of his people and neighboring tribes. He and his sons were murdered. He was put on a reservation in Fresno and had to fight to come back. He's a hero because of his strength and his unwillingness to give in. And this isn't the story they're telling."

She said Disney is able to tell any story they like, while tribes like her own are still fighting to be seen. 

There are 574 federally recognized tribes across the U.S., but more than 300 others who don't have federal recognition like the Yosemite Valley's Southern Sierra Miwuk. 

Among other tribes, Disney's team met with the Ahwaneechee Miwok family whose elder gifted them with the stone and cultural knowledge. From the beginning,  Jackson said they aimed to approach everything in a "good way."

Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa's new Tenaya Stone Spa features Native American artwork with traditional materials. Magnesite was once used as currency by some California tribes. The spa's white magnesite came from a place called Chalk Mountain.

"In my own culture, one of the highest compliments you can get is if someone says, 'You did it in a good way,' " she said. "It means you did it with the pure heart, the right intention. You approached it with the right respect. And some of that is never rushing. It's always taking the time that it takes to create those relationships and that trust. And so I can say that all along the way I felt like we did this in a good way."

But Shannon O'Loughlin, CEO and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs, thinks Disney could have done more. "What all of this makes me think of (are) the opportunities lost," she said.  

The Association on American Indian Affairs describes itself as "the oldest nonprofit serving Indian Country protecting sovereignty, preserving culture, educating youth and building capacity." 

"I'm sure they're trying to create peace and relaxation," O'Loughlin, who is Choctaw of Oklahoma, said of the spa. "But there (are) also opportunities to educate. They could use that platform as an opportunity to understand better those sacred places in those sacred lands, including the place where the spa is actually located."

Honoring the land and peoples

Several tribes are historically tied to the land where Disneyland Resort sits in Southern California.

Disney's Jackson worked with them on a new land acknowledgment plaque outside the spa, which reads:

We gratefully acknowledge the Native peoples on whose ancestral homelands we live and work on.

Here in Los Angeles and Anaheim we honor Juaneño Acjachemen, Gabrielino Tongva, Fernandeño Tataviam, Ventureño Chumash. They are the original caretakers and continue to be a vibrant part of our Native community today.

Wallace Cleaves, director of the California Center for the Native Nations at the University of California, Riverside and a professor, would like to see more engagement between Disneyland and local tribes. He is Tongva.

"I've seen that they've used the Native design as a selling point for the spa, so you know it is marketing Indigenous identity in a way that is also a little bit problematic ... Really concerning is, of course, kind of the displacement," he said, recalling Disneyland's history of featuring Plains Indians, who are not from the area, in Frontierland, which also used to include an Indian Village.

"The amount of positive impact that a corporation like Disneyland could have on pushing back against the erasure of Acjachemen and Tongva people is almost inconceivable," said Angela Mooney D'Arcy, who is Juaneño Acjachemen and the founder and executive director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples. The institute aims to "build the capacity of Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples to protect sacred lands, waters, and cultures."

For now, only Disneyland Resort hotel guests can book appointments at the new Tenaya Stone Spa at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. The spa will open to non-resort guests down the line.

Jackson said it was very important to her that Tenaya Stone Spa staff go through cultural training. Katrina Mosher said staff will tell guests about the stone gifted by the Miwok elder. 

"They're told the story about how Indigenous people believe that stones have memory and that it carries the energy of all that have come before it, for eons and eons," Mosher said. "And it's really that touchpoint to create the connection back to nature." 

Fouch-Moore of the Southern Sierra Miwuk acknowledges the spa is beautiful. "All of the artwork and everything in there, it's Disney. They are able to do these things in a beautiful way, and when they find a theme, they really run for it," she said. "It's also totally inaccessible to your average California Native. Our tribal members couldn't afford to go there."

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