Tenaya's father was a leader of the Ahwahnechee people (or Awahnichi). The Ahwahneechee had become a tribe distinct from the other tribes in the area. Lafayette Bunnell, the doctor of the Mariposa Battalion, wrote that "Ten-ie-ya was recognized, by the Mono tribe, as one of their number, as he was born and lived among them until his ambition made him a leader and founder of the Paiute colony in Ah-wah-ne."
The Ahwahneechee occupied Yosemite Valley until a sickness destroyed most of them. The few Ahwahneechee left Yosemite Valley and joined the Mono Lake Paiutes in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Tenaya's father married a Mono Paiute woman and Tenaya was born from that union. Tenaya grew up amongst his mother's people.
An Ahwahneechee medicine man and friend of his Father persuaded a young Tenaya to return. Tenaya took the few remnants of the Ah-wah-nee-chees that had been living with the Monos and Paiutes and reestablished themselves in Yosemite Valley with him as their leader. Tenaya had four wives.
The Ahwahneechee were a powerful tribe feared by the surrounding Miwok tribes. The surrounding tribes called them Yosemite meaning "they are killers." Others say the name is a corruption of the word "Uzumati" meaning "grizzly bear" which was the totem of the larger of the two main social subdivisions of the band. By 1851, conflicts between the non-indigenous miners and the Native Americans in the Sierra started to increase. The state of California decided to send the Natives to reservations. The Mariposa Battalion was formed to carry out the relocation. Tenaya agreed to move to the Fresno Reservation, instead of the destruction of his entire band. Many of his band left Yosemite Valley instead of following Tenaya. As they approached the Fresno reservation, they fled back to the Yosemite Valley. The Brigade then re-entered the Valley, captured Tenaya's sons, and killed his youngest son. Tenaya then agreed to go back to the reservation.
By the summer of 1851, Tenaya grew tired of the reservation. He gave his pledge that he would not disturb any non-indigenous people. However, in 1852, a group of prospectors were killed in the Valley. Tenaya and his band fled to join the Mono Paiutes. He returned to the Valley in 1853. He was stoned to death in a dispute with the Mono Paiutes over stolen horses. The remaining survivors who were not killed were taken back to Mono Lake and absorbed into the Mono Lake Paiute population.
Another version of the story says that in the spring of 1852, a party of eight prospectors entered the Valley. One of the prospectors had lured his comrades there to kill them and take possession of a mine they held in partnership. He had incited the Yosemites to kill the intruders, arranging his escape and letting the blame fall on them. Late in the summer of 1853, Tenaya and some of the men of his band were playing a hand bone game with some Mono Indians. The gambling became tense and a fight broke out which ended with Tenaya being struck in the head with a rock crushing his skull along with several others of his band killed as well. As was their custom, they were cremated and wailing was heard for two weeks. After the death of their leader, the few remaining members dispersed between Mono Lake and to the near west.