Celebrating heritage: Nevada County Library collection highlights Nisenan culture
Shelly Covert gets emotional when talking about the history and culture of her people, the Nisenan tribe indigenous to Nevada County.
The Nisenan were once a federally-recognized tribe that held a more than 70-acre reservation, the Nevada City Rancheria, on what is now Cement Hill. However, in the 1960s, the tribe was stripped of its land and its federal recognition, effectively cutting it off from federal grants and programs designed to protect Native American tribes.
Though the tribe has remained intact and members have worked to retain many aspects of their culture, the tribe’s heritage hasn’t been well-known or celebrated locally, said Covert, tribal secretary of the Nevada City Rancheria.
It feels sometimes as though the tribe’s been forgotten, she said.
“Being so proud of the culture, and then having well-meaning scholars say, ‘But you’re no more,’ and a government document that says you’re extinct, it just makes you feel bad,” Covert said.
Covert is working to help change that. The Nisenan tribe has partnered with the Nevada County Library to help spotlight the tribe and its heritage. Beginning Monday, visitors to the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research at 211 North Pine St. in Nevada City will have an opportunity to view a detailed research collection highlighting Nisenan history, culture and language.
The most prominent component of the collection is an interactive kiosk. Library visitors can wave their hands over eight topic buttons to trigger content on a large screen; at the kiosk, they can view a digital map of the tribe’s ancestral territory, read about the tribe’s history or listen to a story translated into one of the tribe’s native dialects, among other topics.
The collection also includes books, journals, dissertations and newspaper clippings with accounts of the tribe.
Covert said the collection is a meaningful step in grounding the tribe in the community.
“Just the fact that there’s some shelves with a Nisenan collection on them is really good to counteract (the idea) that people from here are no longer here,” Covert said.
It took more than a year to assemble the collection, which was funded by a $37,900 grant from the California State Library. Nevada County Librarian Laura Pappani called the project a first-of-its-kind collaboration for the library — but one that is fundamental to the library’s mission to cultivate and provide information to the community.
“There was no place to go and say, okay let me see what’s out there about the Nisenan,” Pappani said.
Developing the collection involved pouring over California Indian Library Collection bibliographies that were created as part of a UC Berkeley research project, said Vaile Fujikawa, a library technician and the manager of the collaborative technology center for the Nevada County Library.
“You don’t just get to go into Google and type in ‘Nisenan Indians’ and you get all these results,” Fujikawa said.
Fujikawa instead spent time pouring over journals, dissertations and other written works looking for relevant information, and then often following that information to additional sources.
The research was complicated by the fact that scholars often label the Nisenan tribe as Maidu, another tribe from the Plumas County area. The process was “a treasure hunt,” Fujikawa said.
“You’re digging through diaries and texts, and you see a word and you’re like, ‘Oh! Here we go,’ and maybe it’s five sentences.”
The tribe also contributed cultural documents and pieces of oral history, including songs passed down from Covert’s grandmother. Revisiting the tribe’s past can be a difficult process, Covert said; tribal elders were often tight-lipped about the tribe’s heritage, and the “historical trauma” suffered by the tribe is still fresh.
Still, “to accomplish something like this, you have to talk about yourself, you have to talk about the tribe, you have to talk about the past even if it’s really dark and painful and sad,” Covert said. “What always comes through is the strength of the people that survive.”
And the tribe’s stories won’t just be confined to the library. The interactive kiosk is mobile and can be placed in community centers, government buildings and used by schools in conjunction with Native American history curriculum.
That’s an exciting prospect for both Covert and library staff.
“There’s going to this whole generation of Nevada County fourth-graders who are going to get to hear your grandma singing and get to experience it,” Fujikawa said to Covert.
Covert said she also hopes the collection inspires scholars to continue the research started by the library staff.
The tribe has been especially focused on revitalizing its culture in recent years, teaming up with Sierra College’s Grass Valley Campus to host a heritage day and partnering with Sierra Streams Institute to better communicate the tribe’s historical presence on local land.
“There’s nothing better than a group of undergrads or grad students focusing on Nisenan linguistics or archeology,” Covert said. “I hope it awakens that in people who are looking to study somebody that hasn’t been studied very much.”
But perhaps the collection’s most significant value is that it provides members of the tribe with a way to understand and consider their own ancestry, said Fujikawa.
“What really thrills me the most is that it’s there for the tribe,” Fujikawa said, turning to Covert. “Your daughter can go to the Foley. And that’s cool.”
Covert agreed, noting that the collection can serve to help the tribe re-establish its identity in Nevada County – one of the reasons she has such an emotional reaction to it.
“It seems like such a little thing to have a bunch of books on a shelf in an old library downtown, but all in all I think it works toward the wellness of the people, somehow,” Covert said, pausing to exhale. “Just being reflected back in the community after all this time is really, really heavy.”
To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.
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