Two hundred years ago, most of Northern California was Indian country. Here in Nevada County we live in the ancestral homeland of the Nisenan, which translates in English to “from among us” or “from our skies.”
Pre-contact Nisenan lived in small villages, or tribelets, scattered throughout this region of the Sierra foothills. They were bordered by the Maidu and Konkow to the north, and the Miwok to the south.
They survived on acorns and a wide variety of game animals including elk, back when there were herds here. They spoke their own language, a form of proto-Maiduan, but they were not Maidu.
“Scholars loosely interchange the word Maidu for Nisenan, but I have learned that there are four separate tribes labeled as Maidu,” said Shelly Covert, tribal secretary of the Nevada City Rancheria.
The Nisenan were first contacted in the early 1800s, when the local native population started trading with European settlers. By the late 1840s, however, the California Gold Rush was beginning.
That was when the tribe began to see the real impacts of colonization and assimilation.
The earliest documentation showing federal recognition for the Nisenan tribe reportedly dates back to 1852.
In 1887, Chief Charley Cully obtained a land allotment on what is now Cement Hill. In 1911, however, that land allotment was converted into a rancheria under an executive order from President Woodrow Wilson.
More than a half century later, in 1964, the Nevada City Rancheria was terminated. Covert said that the termination was voluntary, but most tribe members did not understand the documents they signed.
“There were mining claims on either side of the reservation,” Covert said. “They had tried to get the land for years.”
The Nisenan tribe has also lost its federal recognition. That hampers access to grants, scholarships and other forms of funding for their members.
“The main thing is that we don’t have federal Indian programs like housing and education,” Covert said. “And, of course, we have no land.”
According to the www.NevadaCityRancheria.org website, “While all but four of California’s previously terminated rancherias have regained their federally recognized status, the Nisenan are still fighting to restore their federal recognition. Covert estimates the tribe has no more that 100 recognized members with another nearly as many pending confirmation.”
The pre-contact elders are now long gone. And in some cases, they did not to share traditional Nisenan culture with younger members of the tribe — leading to a kind of intergenerational disconnect.
“The people of that culture in our family, they don’t talk about it a lot,” Covert said.
“My grandfather, he and all his siblings were taken to Indian boarding school,” she said. “He did not share the culture with my mom or her sisters, for their own safety.”
But Covert said she takes heart in the cultural revitalization movement taking root in many native communities, and there’s a new effort to help preserve and protect local Nisenan heritage.
The Nevada County Library has recently received a $37,900 grant from the California State Library to help build and preserve a collection of books, photographs, and artifacts of historical and cultural significance.
“As members of the tribe age and move out of the area, there’s a real risk of losing them forever,” said Nevada County Librarian Laura Pappani. “This is a way of trying to preserve an important part of Nevada County history.”
The county has until June 30, 2015, to use the grant funds. The new collection built with that money will be housed at the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research, at 211 North Pine Street.
An opportunity for the community to learn more about the Nisenan is fast approaching, as the fifth annual Nisenan Heritage Day will be hosted Sept. 6 at Sierra College’s Nevada County campus in Grass Valley.
Those attending will have the opportunity to meet the families of the Nevada City Rancheria, as they share their history and celebrate through presentations by speakers, artisans, basket weavers and tribal dancers.
“The Nisenan hold the truth about their history and can tell it like no one else, rather than leave it to teachers, who have to troll the Internet looking for lesson plans on a subject about which they know little to nothing,”
Judith Lowry, an artist and leader of the California Heritage Indigenous Research Project, states at the rancheria website.
And often, such as with “the sawmill incident,” the full truth has not made the pages of history.
In spring 1849, brothers Samuel and George Holt built a sawmill a few miles outside of Grass Valley.
In May, 1850, it was burned to the ground by the Nisenan.
Samuel Holt, the elder of the two brothers, was killed by arrows. George Holt escaped, wounded.
Days later a contingent of 24 soldiers from Camp Far West arrived to put down the uprising. There are several historical accounts preserved in the literature of that era — but all of the narratives start with the Indian attack, offering little information on its provocation.
“You don’t hear the Indian side of the story, which is that the Holt brothers were raping and molesting the young girls of the village,” Covert said. “Of course after this fight, they paid swift and strong retribution to all of the Indians in the area. They attacked villages that had nothing to do with the fight, which seems to happen in history all the time.”
See this story at TheUnion.com for a link to a featured article written by Covert published in the October 2012 Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin, as well as a video sharing the story of the Mendocino Trail of Tears.
To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.