Disney's new wellness spa is serene, gorgeous, and begs the question: “What were they thinking?”
After a long day of pounding the pavement in the parks, a relaxing foot massage is the real Disney magic. Disney resorts around the world have quite a few spas on property, some created by the same Walt Disney Imagineers who work on themed attractions. It’s a whole experience, often with a backstory like any other attraction. Disney Cruise Line has an incredible hydrotherapy Rainforest Room. Aulani – A Disney Resort & Spa in Hawaii, has the award-winning Laniwai, and now Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa at Disneyland Resort has the Tenaya Stone Spa—the most beautiful, alluring space I’ve ever seen in the hospitality industry. But behind the charm is a Spidey-sense that tugs at your stomach and whispers, “Something is very wrong here.”
The new 6,000-square-foot spa officially opened on September 16, 2021, and it is jaw-droppingly gorgeous with agate-inlay doors, white magnesite artwork, a giant redwood root chandelier, and dramatic black obsidian at every turn. It’s mesmerizing from a near floor-to-ceiling stained glass mural that doubles as a larger-than-life suncatcher in the relaxation lounge to the warm, sweet scent of cedar and sage that lingers in the halls.
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The design—as with anything Disney—is all about the unique details, such as the choice to use wood cuttings so you can see the life rings of a tree instead of traditional plank flooring. The design is a riff off Yosemite National Park, taking inspiration from the Grand Californian and neighboring Disney California Adventure Park, but it’s also inspired by what Disney refers to as a “Native thinking” of nature, which incorrectly homogenizes all Indigenous cultures. Katrina Mosher, an art director at Walt Disney Imagineering, oversaw the spa project and together with Disney’s Native American Cultural Advisor and Imagineer Dawn Jackson set out to create an experience that “honors nature like Native Americans.”
The spa is divided into four cardinal directions, each with its own color and element. You enter the spa through the west doors, represented by the color black and the element of water. Across the arbor, you see the east, represented by the bright yellow sun in the stained glass mural. And to the left and right corridors, the treatment rooms and locker facilities respectively, you get the north (earth and white) and the south (air and red).
These four points, which are said to bring harmony to the mind, body, and spirit, are again brought up at the beginning of a treatment. A spa attendant meets you at the agate doors and presents you with a bowl of rocks. There are four types of rocks in the bowl: black obsidian, white magnesite, red pumice, and gold pyrite. You’re instructed to choose a stone that speaks to you. And once you pick up a rock, you’re then supposed to set an intention and give your rock that energy.
This was all explained to me and other journalists at a media preview of the spa before it officially opened. Mosher and Jackson met with small groups on the other side of those agate doors, under a brush arbor circled around a massive obsidian stone in the heart of the room. We were told it’s called the Tenaya Stone. And after a spa guest chooses their rock and sets their intention, a spa attendant will walk you through the doors into the arbor, and you will place your rock somewhere on or around the Tenaya Stone to both add and receive energy and healing from it.
In Jackson’s research of Indigenous tribes of the Yosemite Valley, she met and broke bread with Ahwahnechee-Miwok Elders, and, according to Disney, “the stone revealed itself” to them. The Elders then blessed and gifted the Tenaya Stone to Disney. These Elders also told Jackson they were direct descendants of Chief Tenaya, the last great Chieftain of the Yosemite Valley, which was incredibly serendipitous as Disney had already landed on the name Tenaya for the spa. We, the journalists, were then instructed to touch the stone and feel its energy. And that’s when things got weird.
The magic of Disney is an escape to fantasy. But this is a real stone from the real world. I was suddenly very aware I was standing in a room full of white people and Jackson, a member of the midwestern Saginaw Chippewa Tribe—not the California Yosemite Valley—speaking on behalf of the very Indigenous peoples who were absent and missing from this conversation.
The wellness industry is often criticized for appropriating rituals from Indigenous peoples, but Disneyland proudly debuted its new spa with a big rock not inspired by but literally from the Indigenous and sacred land in Central California, and plopped it right into Anaheim.
A Mysterious Stone and a Potential Felony
In an interview on the Disney Parks Blog, Jackson said that after looking at several tribes in California, she “focused on the Southern Sierra Miwok” (though not the tribe’s preferred spelling). But the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, the Indigenous People of the Yosemite Valley, and what is now Yosemite National Park, say they were never contacted. The first time the tribal council and Elders heard about the spa was when a USA Today reporter, Eve Chen, reached out for comment on a story about the spa the same week it opened.
Being ignored is a running theme that haunts the Indigenous peoples of Yosemite Valley. In the last century alone, they’ve been forcibly removed from their homeland, systematically separated from their loved ones and families, on the receiving end of brutal and typically unpunished patterns of violence, and denied recognition as a tribe by the federal government, something they’re still fighting for today.
“The federal government says we don’t exist,” said Sandra Chapman, Chairperson of the American Indian Council of Mariposa Country and the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation. She’s one of the tribe’s Elders and is a direct descendant of Chief Tenaya with the bloodline to prove it, something many Indigenous people in California can’t trace, as documentation has been destroyed or lost as a result of the state’s Gold Rush era genocide. But for Chapman, the lineage is short and crystal clear. And her family has never heard of any stone connected with Tenaya. Nor have they heard of blessing stones.
“We don’t practice that at our ceremonies,” said tribal council secretary and outreach coordinator Tara Fouch-Moore. She’s Chapman’s great-niece and another descendant of Chief Tenaya. “Touching stones and blessing stones? That’s not something that we practice.”
So who gave Disney the stone? And did Disney get duped? The tribal council doesn’t know. No one within the tribe has come to the council about it, and in Disney’s promotion of the spa, the Elders are not named.
However, in a paid article published in the O.C. Register, the stone is said to be from the Parker family, Ahwahnechee-Miwok Elders who met Jackson through her connections with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. A Disney official also confirmed this story to Fodor’s, saying, “Our team visited the [Parker] family in their ancestral homelands in the Yosemite Valley and from the family, the stone was chosen, blessed and gifted to us.”
In a Disney Parks blog post, Mosher says the stone specifically came from Tenaya Lake, although Disney declined to confirm this to Fodor’s.
To many Miwuk tribal members, the real issue goes beyond cultural appropriation. It’s cultural theft. And not like a metaphor. If this stone was taken from Lake Tenaya, that’s a federal crime, as Lake Tenaya is well within the borders of Yosemite National Park.
The sad irony is that members of the tribe can’t even gather herbs from Yosemite for spiritual ceremonies without specific permission. And this large rock now sits in Anaheim on totally different tribal land; a land that was stolen from the Tongva people. There’s a plaque outside the spa which acknowledges Indigenous land and Indigenous people of Southern California, but not the people of Yosemite Valley. In the worst light, Disney is now in possession of potentially stolen federal property (which was already stolen from Indigenous people). In the best light, Disney is totally naive, did D-minus work researching Indigenous people of California, and seemingly took someone’s word for it. And if Disney was trying to copy a fictional, catch-all “Native thinking,” that’s something Miwuks say you just don’t do. In the many conversations Fodor’s had with tribal members, the same thing was said over and over again: “One person doesn’t represent a tribe. Disney should have spoken to the tribe.”
If Disney had spoken to the tribe, they would have learned some seriously disturbing context that might have changed their entire design direction. Touching the Tenaya Stone? Not a good look. Chief Tenaya’s child was stoned to death by a battalion of white settlers in the Yosemite Valley. And while the Miwuks don’t believe in touching or blessing stones, they do believe that stones are ancient ones, and ancient ones have memories. If that’s true, then a stone from Tenaya Lake—the lake which was named not really in honor of Chief Tenaya but after a bloody, defeating battle—probably doesn’t have good memories.
The Cruel Irony of California’s Tourism
Disney has said Tenaya Stone Spa was not named after Chief Tenaya but simply the word “tenaya,” which means to dream. But Mosher told the O.C. Register in a separate editorial story that “we chose Tenaya before we even knew it meant to dream.” So which is it? And why would a word like Tenaya just come to mind? Probably because it’s everywhere within Yosemite Valley and the National Park. There’s Tenaya Meadow, Tenaya Canyon, Tenaya Creek, Tenaya Creek Bridge—the list goes on. And, for better or worse, these places are intentionally named after Chief Tenaya. But, no matter the meaning or Disney’s intent, the word is a Miwuk word. And it’s everywhere in the spa’s gift shop. You can buy bottles of soap and lotion branded as “Tenaya Stone Spa”—even though the packaging says it’s from Malie Inc. (“The Essence of Hawaii”) in Koloa, Hawaii.
In all likelihood, a huge profit is going to be made by Disney off of this word. When asked if any proceeds from the spa would go back to Indigenous people or if any resources had been donated to Indigenous people in lieu of the stone, Disney didn’t answer. (Requests for interviews with Jackson and Mosher were also not granted.)
Not even five years ago, the word Tenaya—along with many other Miwuk words—was in a messy trademark battle between Yosemite National Park and its former concessions vendor, Delaware North. The story garnered a lot of national media attention and discussion on the monetary value of logos and names, particularly in the hospitality industry, where merchandise and attraction dollars go hand-in-hand. But in all the coverage, there was no mention that the words stuck in the corporate tug-a-war were from Indigenous languages. Even before Delaware North (or the concessions vendor before that), the National Park had no claim to these trademarks.
It’s a nasty intersection of Indigenous intellectual property (IP) and unpermitted taking, or appropriation. But where’s the line? According to Melody McCoy, an attorney specializing in Indigenous IP for the Native American Rights Fund, the gold standard for any appropriation of Indigenous cultural property, in the interests of tourism or otherwise, is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document which every major country in the world has approved.
“The Declaration stands for the principle that Indigenous peoples’ cultural and intellectual property should not be taken without their free prior and informed consent. If Disney took the tribe’s cultural or intellectual property without the tribe’s free prior and informed consent, Disney arguably is not abiding by the Declaration,” explains McCoy, who finds it ironic that Disney takes such protection of its own IP, copyrights, and trademarks very seriously. “If only Disney would accord the property of Indigenous peoples the same respect and treatment.”
Why do hospitality brands continue to take and imitate and profit from the Indigenous people of the Yosemite Valley? Because it’s easy to when there’s no paper trail. The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation is one of about 400 tribes across the country still not federally recognized. The state of California and the National Park Service recognizes the tribe, but the federal government doesn’t. And while a “gold standard” global declaration can define appropriation, it can’t issue real consequences. Not being federally recognized means a lack of resources and a lack of protection. It means you don’t have much to fight with against a colossal company like Disney.
Fouch-Moore said that many tribal members are hurt and angry about the name of the spa and the stone, and even though many wish they could protest and bring awareness to this, they don’t have the funds to get down to Anaheim. What little the tribe has from grants and members goes to spiritual ceremonies and lawyer fees in the fight to get federally recognized. Though they are elected officials like any sovereign government, the tribal council is not paid for their time. The only paid positions within the tribe are a handful of people at the tribe’s mental health facility. And the Sarah Priest’s allotment land, which some members live off of, still doesn’t have running water. The tribe is fighting for the bare minimum in terms of funding and resources for the community. And as both Fouch-More and Chapman noted, there’s no way any member of the tribe could afford treatment at Tenaya Stone Spa, where body massages start at $160.
So, What Now?
Yet another tourist attraction profiting and using ideas and words from The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation upsets the tribe members but doesn’t surprise them. It’s almost expected. The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation has had to watch their homeland from the border of Yosemite National Park for decades. Chapman, who is now one of the oldest people in the tribe, recalls an oral history an Elder told her years ago: “When the last Indian leaves Yosemite, the rocks will fall.”
The younger generations—Millennials and Gen X Miwuks—seem to have more hope and an understanding that Disney’s power comes from marketing and messaging. They’d rather not focus on the stone or the spa, but on what Disney can do now. And that means helping them in their 40-plus-year fight of becoming a federally recognized tribe.
“If they’re capitalizing off of our tribe, then they should help promote our recognition, too,” said Waylon Coats, a member of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation as well as Cultural Director for the Chicken Ranch Tribe of Me-Wuk Indians of California. “I think it’s only fair.” After our interview, Coats sent a follow-up text: “Maybe that stone is our answer to our prayers and our ancestors’ prayers to finally have a dialogue with greater outreach.”
Changing, evolving, and fixing mistakes is at the core of Disney’s business model and goes back to the earliest days of Disneyland. Walt Disney considered Disneyland “a live, breathing thing that will need changes.” And the tribe has a shortlist of things the spa can change immediately: 1. Name your spa something else. 2. Change the perspective.
“If they want to have a nature-based spa, then that’s really wonderful,” said Fouch-Moore. “But to have it be ‘Native American-inspired’ it’s just another layer in this erasure that has been going on for centuries. It underscores this idea that we’re not here anymore so they can use our imagery as much as they want. But we are here.”
Update: Apr. 7, 2022, 8:30 p.m. PDT. In an emailed statement to Fodor’s, a Disney spokesperson has denied the Tenaya stone came from Yosemite National Park. “To confirm, the stone was not sourced from the Yosemite National Park. Any suggestion that the stone was obtained in any unlawful way is completely misleading and blatantly false.”