Building for the future
Don Ryberg is a strong, rugged 62-year-old man, with a thick mop of coarse dark hair tied into a small pony-tail. Dressed in a black T-shirt with a bright red star on it and sporting a swanky pair of sunglasses, Ryberg is every bit a tough guy.
But there’s a tender, wistful look in his grey-green eyes, whenever he talks about his people and their past.
As the chairman of the Tsi-Akim Maidu tribe of American Indians, indigenous to this part of the country, Ryberg bears the task of keeping alive his culture against all odds, as well as fighting for the rights of his people.
On Friday afternoon, Ryberg was engrossed constructing a traditional Maidu house on a property owned by the Nevada County Land Trust on Lake Vera-Purdon Road. He was knee deep in a wide pit – around 12 feet in diameter – building a hut for the elders of his tribe.
“It’s the responsibility of today’s Maidus to build stuff like this,” he said. “We went through a cultural genocide and we lost a lot of stuff. This hut is going to be for the elders, to bring the elders in so that they can remember the old days. You know how old people forget, and then they see something and it brings back the old memories.”
According to Wikipedia, the Maidu Indians lived in the central Sierra Nevada, in the drainage area of the Feather and American rivers. They were divided into three groups, the Nisenan or southern Maidu, the Mountain or northeastern Maidu, and the Konkow or northwestern Maidu. The Tsi-Akim tribe belongs to the Mountain Maidus.
In 1854, there were 2,000 Maidus in Nevada City alone, Ryberg said. By the 1900 census there were just seven of them left in the town. The numbers have increased ever since: Ryberg estimates there are about 50 Maidus in Nevada City today.
The 38-acre property where the hut is being built, is on American Indian land. Full of Douglas firs, cedars, ponderosa pines, madrones, black, live and valley oaks – some dating back hundreds of years – the area includes sites which historians confirm were once used by Indians.
“There is a very old heritage oak tree adjacent to the location we chose (to build the hut) and below the tree is a small milling station,” said Grayson Coney, cultural director for the Tsi-Akim Maidu. “We are going to take photographs and prepare it into a poster. These posters will be offered for sale to raise funds for elders to make it to cultural events.”
But, according to Ryberg, there aren’t very many elders left. Most of the 156 Tsi-Akim Maidu tribe members today, are young people.
“Our youth is our future; they are the men who are going to carry this on,” Ryberg said. “It is a matter of concern that the young people understand where they came from.”
The bigger concern for Maidu Indians today, however, is obtaining federal recognition, a status they lost in the 1960s due to government policies, Ryberg said. Though some tribes got their status back in the 1970s through litigation, the Maidus didn’t. The struggle has persisted ever since.
“They have a moratorium in the government today of not recognizing tribes and the reason for that is gaming,” Ryberg added. “And my answer to them today is, what was it 10 years ago? What was it 20 years ago? What was it 60 years ago? It always was something. There was always a reason. They didn’t have a problem recognizing us 150 years ago when they were chasing and killing us. But they have a problem today.”
Wendy Olemick, a Maidu who lives on the Lake Vera-Purdon Road property with her 12-year-old son, seemed acutely aware of the injustices faced by her tribe.
“The government has broken a lot of treaties with Indians and if they would stand by their treaties, the Indians would not have to prove their heritage to anyone,” Olemick said. “The North American Indians in Ñorthern California and I am sure in other states have to prove who they are. And they are the only race in the U.S. who has to do that.”
Ryberg believes a tribe without land is nothing, though federal recogition will bring much more than just lost territory to the Maidus.
“First of all, the tribe will gain respect,” Ryberg said. “The tribe will gain privileges like Indian healthcare, higher education and land. “
For now, the Maidus keep their heritage alive through cultural events – like building a traditional hut.
“We carry on,” Ryberg said. “We have our bear dance every year and we have a big time every year which is gambling, dancing, songs, and ceremonies and we are always trying to get the young people involved.”
To contact staff writer Soumitro Sen, e-mail soumitros@theunion .com or call 477-4229.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User