Nisenan art event highlights importance of Nevada County history |

Nisenan art event highlights importance of Nevada County history

Will Edward’s new art gallery that sits like a citadel, overlooking Nevada City, was teeming with people Wednesday evening.

The tenor of the room was light despite the more difficult topic at hand. The crowd, mostly older, mostly white, arrived in the home-style gallery to view the work of public artist Jenny Hale who was trying to tell a story that is often ignored not just in Nevada County, but also in the country at large.

The images scattered across the walls were of Native Americans, specifically the Nisenan Tribe, capturing their relationship to Nevada City.

The event highlighted two series of Hale’s work, “I Still Live Here,” and “Guardians of the Dance,” which was commissioned by the California Heritage Indigenous Research Project “Visibility Through Art” initiative, with the intent of celebrating the Nisenan people, and raising awareness to push senators and congress-members to restore federal recognition back to the Nisenan people.

They had the recognition “illegally stripped” from them in the 1970s, according to the Nevada City Rancheria, an organization entitled because of President Woodrow Wilson, who gave the federally recognized land to the Nisenan people.

Wednesday, Hale and Shelly Covert, the Nisenan Tribal spokesperson and executive director of the California Heritage Indigenous Research Project, wanted to use art to resurrect a history that is often ignored, and at present unknown to many.

“Art is a nice way into conversations that are really tough,” Covert said to the crowd. “It’s a sort of backdoor” into a really messy and difficult topic.

The work of “I Still Live Here” displays a painting of a Nisenan dancer, photoshopped over a picture of Nevada City from 1851, which currently sits in the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce. Before the Gold Rush, that area was called Ustomah, and home to about 7,000 Nisenan people, according to Hale. A few years after the settlement, murder and decimation of land from non-native people, the Nisenan had lost more than half of its population, Hale said.

Hale’s art work, and the story of the Nisenan people, was meant to be showcased not just for those attending the gallery, but also the general public. Flo Fahrenheit, an attendee of the event, was interested in how intent Hale had been to have her art work made public.

“(Hale’s) whole life doing art, she never means it to be just hung on walls,” said Fahrenheit. “She wants it to be public, accessible.”

After the event within the gallery, participants were encouraged to go outside and view Hale’s artwork, which is displayed on the windows above the Camelot Gallery on Broad Street. According to Hale, those works are more easily distinguished at night and are on display until Feb. 17.

A new relationship

The partnership between Hale and Covert, and the project they started, began about a year ago when Hale was invited to Nisenan Heritage Day. From that day, it quickly sprouted.

“It happened really fast,” Covert said. “I met (Hale) in September or October of last year, and now, here we are in February.”

As a Nisenan tribal member, Covert worked with Hale to present an accurate and honest portrayal of the Nisenan people through art. This proved to be difficult for numerous reasons, but particularly for the dearth of native American imagery around Nevada County.

“(Jenny) had very little visual images to work with,” Covert said. “So much of our culture is only alive in tribal memory, and you can’t look in a book or go on Google to find these things.”

Having lived in the area since 1971, Hale had little knowledge herself about the Nisenan people, and particularly their presence in Nevada County. More recently, however, the public artist has become more aware of where the history of Nisenan is misappropriated, and where it is missing altogether. Lately, Hale remembers visiting the Searls Historical Museum, and not seeing any presence of the indigenous community.

“I’m more sensitive to the absence of the culture that was here before we arrived,” Hale said. “I’m more aware of their absence.”

An awakening

Hale’s “awakening,” to the indigenous people, as she described it, was what she hoped to instill in others who view her art.

“The history of the Nisenan is really erased,” Hale said. “What I hope is to wake people up to the culture of what was here before the Gold Rush.”

Covert, for her part, had been excited to be a part of the process of displaying imagery and stories about the Nisenan community — her community — and not simply remaining a viewer, watching depictions of her culture from the sidelines, as has traditionally occurred.

“It’s always somebody talking about us, and not engaging with us,” said Covert.

Although Covert initially had fears of cultural appropriation when beginning the art project with Hale, a non-native person creating artwork of native people, the more time she spent with Hale, the more quickly her fears subsided. Whenever Covert thought Hale was going to use an inappropriate picture of the Nisenan for inspiration, Covert would notify the artist, and the artist would take heed.

“If, at any point, (my uneasiness with a piece) had not been received by you,” Covert said to Hale in front of the gallery’s attendees, “it wouldn’t have worked.”

Throughout the past year, Hale herself had many moments of hesitation, fearing her art work to be that of cultural appropriation. At Wednesday’s event, Hale spoke of her anguish, at one point awaking from a dream where she was rummaging through Covert’s drawers at her home. She immediately called Covert and shared her experience.

While still lingering, Hale’s concerns began to ease when she spoke with a poet, and close friend of hers.

“‘This is a shared history of pain,’” he said to her. “Until we face it together, we will never truly heal.’”

The sentiment helped her continue, in addition to Covert’s encouragement. At Wednesday’s gallery, Covert had a lot of appreciation for the artist, as she announced to Hale in front of the gallery’s audience, “Thank you, Jenny, for listening.”

Contact reporter Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or email him at

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