32 Acres: Project is getting land for the first time since the indigenous tribe lost federal recognition in 1964 | TheUnion.com

32 Acres: Project is getting land for the first time since the indigenous tribe lost federal recognition in 1964


To help with the May 30 clean up, contact Joe Naake of Hospitality House at 530-798- 9817 or email info@hhshelter.org.

Fifty-five years.

That’s how long it’s been since the local indigenous people have been able to claim tribal land.

The Nisenan tribe, having lived in the area for at least a couple thousand years, lost federal recognition in 1964. Today, members are trying to overturn the government’s decision. Though it hasn’t yet been successful, the tribe was able to acquire land indirectly through a conduit nonprofit, California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project.

On November 14, 2018, after a five-year process, 32 acres of land on Deer Creek were allocated to the Native American nonprofit by the Nevada City council with the help of The Sierra Fund. On May 30, The Sierra Fund and Hospitality House are inviting the community to help clean up the area.


The nonprofit representing the Nisenan tribe is getting land, which is the closest the tribe has come to having land since federal recognition was lost.

Still, the executive director of the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project is clear that the transaction does not stand in for federal recognition, or appropriated land, back to the tribe.

“This is not tribal land,” said Shelly Covert, Nisenan’s tribal spokesperson and executive director for the nonprofit. “This is not a reservation. The tribe can’t hold land because it doesn’t (federally) exist.”

Rather, the land is indirectly owned by the Nisenan people, and will likely be used to their symbolic and indirect benefit. This is not just the intention of the native American nonprofit, it’s also the mindset of The Sierra Fund, who helped acquire and clean up the 32 acres.

The Sierra Fund’s executive director, Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, intends to use the land to restore the ecosystem, build community resiliency and promote Nisenan culture.

Covert agrees, hoping to reflect what the land was like before the Nisenan population was almost entirely wiped out when the Gold Rush era began in 1849.

“We are experts on the land stewardship and the past and bringing the wildlife back, keeping it a safe, open space into perpetuity,” said Covert.

The Sierra Fund’s program manager Alex Keeble-Toll said it was most appropriate for the Nisenan to care for the acreage.

“It really is a recognition of the first people of this landscape,” said Keeble-Toll.


In the early parts of the 19th century, the Nisenan consisted of thousands of people and hundreds of settlements, according to ”History of Us,” a book on Nisenan history by Tribal Chairman Richard B. Johnson.

“Prior to the gold rush,” Johnson writes, “the Nevada County Indian population was estimated conservatively at around 7,000.”

Due to disease, starvation and slaying, by 1934, a people that had survived thousands of years were reduced to 18.

That same year, according to Johnson’s writing, the Wheeler-Howard Act was passed, broadly encouraging assimilation and giving Native Americans the ability to govern themselves. In 1935, the Nisenan tribe voted “in favor of becoming the Nisenan Nation of the Nevada City Rancheria.”

Things changed in 1958 when the California Rancheria Act deemed 41 tribes to be terminated, according to the American Indian Studies Center. Per this legislation, Congress was also set to improve infrastructure and vocational schools for native people before termination occurred.

Although there were documents to show people living on the Rancheria, Johnson wrote, the government readied to sell it in 1959. By 1964 the land was stripped from the Nisenan people and the tribe lost federal recognition. And Congress never provided the aid it promised, according to Johnson.

Today, the Nisenan tribe of about 150 members has become more public about their historical and contemporary culture, according to Covert.


The 32-acre acquisition is a part of a longer history, tied to the building of the Deer Creek Tribute Trail in 2010, said Martin. As explained by the Bear Yuba Land Trust’s website, the trail has two tribute bridges dedicated to commemorating the Nisenan and Chinese people.

In the fall of 2014, costing about $560,000, the tribute trail was completed, said Keeble-Toll.

More recently, The Sierra Fund acquired a $600,000 grant from the state to clean up and preserve the newly acquired 32 acres that is controlled by the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project. Martin said Nevada City, The Sierra Fund and the tribe began collaborating two years ago.

“We’ve kind of acted as this coordinating bridge,” said Keeble-Toll, supporting the tribe’s nonprofit with financial resources and land maintenance efforts.

The environmental restoration nonprofit has a memorandum of understanding with the tribe to do mine remediation and raise funds for the land, but not act on the property without the heritage project’s permission.

“It was a long, very deliberate process,” said Martin. “(The Nisenan people) really think hard and long about what they’re doing.”

The acreage will be connected to the tribute trail, and is off of Champion Mine Road. The Sierra Fund has spent almost five years assessing the property, cleaning up any contaminants leftover from recycling efforts in World War II, said Martin, and working with cultural anthropologists to survey the area.

The Sierra Fund hopes to finish cleaning the trail sometime during the fall, said Martin.

MAY 30

The Sierra Fund is collaborating with Hospitality House on May 30, inviting the community to help clean up the 32-acres of land, and help give homeless people in the area food and shelter, said Hospitality House’s Program Manager Isaias Acosta.

“We feed everybody and get people cleaned up,” said Acosta.

This is one of Hospitality House’s two yearly initiatives to invite the community to help ensure homeless people are safely removed from an area and given a place to go.

The nonprofit has been talking with the heritage project about conducting this event since early April, said Acosta. Representatives from the two nonprofits went out to the property to survey the area together.

“(The heritage project) has been very wonderful to work with,” said Acosta, who expects about 35 people to help.

“Right now, I have 10 volunteers with three pickup trucks dedicated,” he said.

After the land is cleaned up, and safe to operate after the fall, the heritage project wants to implement culturally relevant things to the area, like a caretaker facility, a kitchen for the tribe to cook and a space to share and educate the community on the history of Nisenan culture.

Covert hopes to incorporate everyone into a space never experienced in Nevada County.

“This is about trying to work in harmony with people in our ancestral homelands for the first time — for the first time ever.”

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at scorey@theunion.com.

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