Forum to preserve native artifacts in Nevada County |

Forum to preserve native artifacts in Nevada County

Photo submitted by Hank Meals

In an effort to preserve artifacts and the very legacy of Nevada County’s rich cultural heritage, a panel of local archeologists and experts from state and federal agencies and Native American tribes will lead a public forum this weekend during the inaugural Nisenan Heritage Day.

Hosted by the Nevada County Historical Society, the free discussion, titled “Nevada County’s Historical Legacy – A Public Forum on Artifacts on Public and Private Land,” will take place from 8:30 a.m to noon Saturday at the Miner’s Foundry in Nevada City. Registration starts at 8 a.m.

The artifact symposium is designed to give property owners clarity on ambiguous state and federal laws governing historical artifacts.

Daniel Ketcham, president of the Historical Society, has received a number of calls from well intentioned property owners who felt “duped” into giving up artifacts to a “pseudo-Native American Tribe.”

Fueling archeologist nightmares are rumors of Native American artifacts being taken and reburied at different sites.

“I couldn’t ignore it any longer,” said Ketcham who helped organize the event in response to the calls he received.

The forum will help outline property owner rights and goes a step further by suggesting the documentation of artifacts and landscape features as they are found. In addition, organizers hope the symposium will give landowners a chance to voice their own concerns and questions to the seven-person panel that includes representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, United Auburn Indian Community and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Dialogue like this is considered timely and critical because large properties in the county are increasingly subdivided into smaller and smaller lots, a development pattern that threatens to disturb and erase archeological memory.

Having a panel of experts speak about Nisenan history simultaneously with the first annual Heritage Day means a lot to Shelly Covert, tribal council secretary for the Nevada City Rancheria.

Covert also wears the hat of Cultural Outreach Spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria and for the past three years has volunteered as a docent at the Nevada City Firehouse Museum, where a carefully displayed exhibit of Nisenan artifacts and photographs is housed.

She says the Historical Society-led forum gives credibility to the Nisenan of the Nevada City Rancheria, a small tribe of 80 members that many in the community erroneously believe to be extinct.

“We’re talking about these lands and artifacts being removed from here … to the history that people seem to have forgotten,” Covert said.

Tearing out a page of history

In Nevada County, numerous artifacts and non-movable “features” exist on private lands. Many remain undiscovered, just below the surface or overgrown by brush.

Unknown numbers of artifacts have been removed from original sites and placed in private collections, museums and universities. Still others — along with the knowledge they hold — have been sold to the highest bidder on eBay.

Secretly removing artifacts and neglecting to record their origins changes the entire story of a place.

“It’s like tearing a page out of a book,” said local author and archeologist Hank Meals, one of the forum’s scheduled speakers.

In his 40 years living in the county, Meals said has witnessed many artifacts disappear. Without passing down the knowledge that an artifact offers, a glimpse of history is easily lost in one generation.

“It really belongs where it was found … It speaks to this whole ownership thing. Who owns them? I think it speaks to the legacy of the entire county,” Meals said.

To Meals, Nevada County is a “cultural landscape” if you know what to look for.

Tree lines, land contours, old bottles and rusty trunk latches tell of timber and mining industries, PG&E camps, recreation sites and the people who lived and worked here. Fragments of Chinese pottery and Native American arrowheads are still found in the soil.

While textiles, baskets and items made with feather and bone long ago decomposed in local acidic soils, many stone objects remain.

Archeological evidence of the Nisenan culture goes back at least 1,500 years. A subset of the Southern Maidu, the traditional territory of the foothill Nisenan encompassed the watersheds of the Yuba, Bear and American rivers. The movement of Nisenan was based on the ripening of plants, the migration of animals and, most importantly, the staple food, the acorn.

Common “features” dotting rural Nevada County include ditches, rock walls and old roads from more recent times and older Native American bedrock mortars and house pits still detectable by the semi-subterranean depression in the earth.

Meals recommends that property owners make a sketch map of an artifact site by first finding north then noting the relativity of artifacts to the landscape. The sketch map can then be tucked aside with the deed to the property preserving history for the next landowner and hopefully generations to come.

“Just in the process of recording it, it starts to unfold,” Meals said.

For information and a list of speakers and topics scheduled for this weekend’s artifact symposium, visit

Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at (530) 401-4877 or

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