Fight to preserve native culture
March 3, 2012
When Shelly Covert was young, she would frequently tap upon the drum of her Nisenan forefathers. It had belonged to Chief Louis “Laloak” Kelly, the Nisenan’s last patriarch, passed down from the tribe headmen before him.
No one knows where the drum is now.
“So many of our artifacts were lost or taken out of our possession,” Covert said.
The missing drum was an eye-opener for Covert, who now sits on the Nevada City Rancheria Tribal Council, which fights for the restoration of federal recognition for the Nisenan, Nevada County’s indigenous people, since recognition was rescinded in 1964.
“Our culture is vulnerable to being lost,” Covert said.
The Nisenan once had a reservation on what is now Cement Hill. When the federal government stripped California’s tribes of their Federal status following the 1958 California Rancheria Act, the Nisenan lost their land.
“My family and all the children were removed,” said Tribal Council Chairman Richard Johnson. “That’s where my grandfather and great grandfather lived. That’s our homeland.”
While all but four of California’s previously terminated rancherias have regained their federally recognized status, the Nisenan are still fighting. Covert estimates the tribe has 80 recognized members, with another 70 pending confirmation.
Securing a nonprofit federal grant would preserve Nisenan culture and be a key step toward federal tribal recognition, Covert said. The grant would fund a cultural center and the recording of stories and songs from the elders and develop educational curriculum for classes, she said.
The Nevada City Council unanimously supported the effort at a meeting in January and agreed to express that backing in the form of a reference letter.
A big hurdle in the Nisenan push for recognition has been the Tsi Akim Maidu people’s local efforts in the last decade in and around Grass Valley and Nevada City. Many people have a misconception that both groups are the same, Covert said.
The Tsi Akim’s efforts were largely successful. Their symbol can be seen on the Idaho Maryland Road and East Main Drive roundabout sculpture. Nevada City deeded a small plot of land at the bottom of Broad Street to the Tsi-Akim. Perhaps their most successful endeavor has been Indigenous Peoples Days, celebrated annually in Nevada City.
But Tsi Akim’s Nevada County heritage is disputed.
“Basically the Tsi Akim’s roots are in Taylorsville,” said Tanis Thorne, director of the Native American studies program at the University of California-Irvine.
“As far as we were able to ascertain, they have no traceable lineage to Nevada County,” Thorne said.
In December 2010, the Nevada County Historical Society board of directors unanimously rescinded their 2000 endorsement of the Plumas County Tsi Akim Maidu.
Subsequently, historic society President Dan Ketchum submitted a letter suggesting the Nevada County Board of Supervisors adopt a motion to rescind its own Tsi Akim endorsement for federal recognition and instead recognize the Nisenan as the “only indigenous tribe of Nevada County.”
The word “Maidu” means “people” in their own language, notes the Tsi Akim Maidu website.
The Maidu are a people whose homelands extend roughly from the southernmost reaches of the Cascade Mountain Range to the north, the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the east, the North Fork of the Consumes River to the south, and to the Sacramento River to the west, the Tsi Akim site reads.
The website indicates that anthropologists have divided the Maidu into three basic groups based upon language variations: Nisenan (foothill or southern Maidu), Konkow (valley or north western Maidu) and the mountain or north eastern Maidu.
Although all those groups are part of the linquistic Maiduan strain, Nevada City’s Firehouse Museum No. 1 Director Wally Hagman said those groups were very different from one another.
“Those labels initially were laid out by white guys that didn’t know,” Hagman said.
Local Tsi Akim efforts are seen as a push for federal recognition, Johnson said.
“If Tsi Akim get recognized here, we lose everything,” Johnson said, referring to a provision in the Federal recognition criteria prohibiting multiple Historic tribes become recognized in a region.
“We would lose our heritage, our culture, our history and identity,” he said.
Tsi Akim Chairman Don Ryberg declined to comment when reached by phone Friday.
Covert said the Nisenan continue to seek recognition. And she hopes to one day have the chief’s drum returned.
“If the drum going missing was the catalyst to what’s happening now, then it’s a good thing,” Covert said. “If that hadn’t happened, I might not have gotten involved with all the people who have helped us since.”
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