Heritage Day helps western Nevada County tribe share culture | TheUnion.com

Heritage Day helps western Nevada County tribe share culture

A Nevada City area Native American Tribe is set to host its eighth annual Nisenan Heritage Day Saturday at Sierra College, featuring speakers, artisans, basket weavers and dancers.

An art reception is scheduled for tonight at Nevada City Winery to kick off the event, which will include work from a variety of artists portraying the people, plants, animals and landscapes of Nevada County before the gold rush.

Shelly Covert, who serves as secretary and spokesperson for the tribe, says Heritage Day is an important event for the Nisenan because it helps preserve the tribe's culture and honor its identity.

The local Nisenan tribe lost its federal recognition as the Nevada City Rancheria in 1964, and its land, on Cement Hill Road in Nevada City, was sold to private owners shortly thereafter. Covert said the tribe has been pursuing restoration of its federal recognition for more than four decades in an effort to regain its land and sovereignty.

All 148 members of the tribe are direct descendants of the Nisenan who lived in Nevada County prior to the gold rush, according to Covert. She said it's rare for a tribe that doesn't live together on a designated rancheria to keep its culture intact — but that's exactly what the Nisenan have done.

"We are still here with our culture, some of our language, our stories, our history, our family genealogies and a sense of place," Covert said. "And we're not confined on a reservation. The fact that we're still here is really rare.

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According to Covert, the tribe has also faced challenges locally with its recognition as Nevada County's heritage tribe.

LOCAL RECOGNITION

In 2000, the Nevada County Historical Society's board of directors approved a resolution written by representatives of the Tsi Akim Maidu tribe, asking for the society's help in achieving official county recognition for that tribe.

The Nevada County Board of Supervisors also approved a resolution in 2001 endorsing the Tsi Akim Maidu tribe's pursuit of federal recognition.

The historical society later rescinded its endorsement of the Tsi Akim Maidu in 2010, after a committee investigation found that the board did not "critically examine the resolution" it approved in 2000 at the Tsi Akim tribe's request, "but rather adopted it as a gesture of good will," according to a committee report.

"In retrospect, this committee now sees that (adopting the resolution) was a mistake," the report states.

But damage was already done, Covert said. The true history of Nevada County's indigenous tribe became clouded.

The Nisenan, she said, is the only tribe that has been native to the area since before the gold rush, making it the only historic tribe of Nevada County. But some dispute that claim, which Covert said causes confusion.

'BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE'

For many years, the Nisenan tribe was quiet, Covert said. During the gold rush, when many of California's indigenous people were killed or forced to flee, keeping a low profile was the best tactic for survival, she said, and that practice became ingrained in the Nisenan's way of life.

Today, members of the tribe are taking steps to document the Nisenan culture and share it with the community, "before it's too late," Covert said.

"We're losing our elders at the speed of light," she said. "And our oral histories are going away so fast. Our culture is fragile, and it's in critical danger of becoming extinct."

The importance of being recognized by the community as the local tribe is important to the Nisenan because, "Our identity is all we have left," Covert said.

HERITAGE DAY EVENTS

Nisenan Heritage Day is a chance for members of the tribe to share their voices.

"You're not getting the history through someone in the middle," Covert said. "Nobody's translating it for us. It's our voice. It's our chance to show our authentic culture."

Friday night's art reception is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at Nevada City Winery, 321 Spring St., Nevada City. A presentation about the event begins at 7 p.m.

Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased at the door.

Covert's band, UnderCover, is scheduled to play from 8 to 10 p.m.

Saturday's Nisenan Heritage Day is set to take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Sierra College gymnasium, 250 Sierra College Drive, Grass Valley. The event is free and open to the public.

Attendees can learn about the Nisenan language, watch traditional tribal dances and listen to panel discussions on topics including "creating community conversations through art," "cultural appropriations" and "cultural/historic trauma."

For more information about Nisenan Heritage Day and the Nisenan tribe, visit: nevadacityrancheria.org

Contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera at mpera@theunion.com or 530-477-4231.

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