Nisenan spokesperson says she believes state recognition is possible
The history of the Nisenan — a native people with a 13,000-year history, can’t be condensed into a two-minute elevator speech.
Instead, it’s a narrative that needs a massive overhaul in the public sphere, said Shelly Covert, a Nisenan person and spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria.
“We’re a terminated tribe,” Covert said.
Now Covert is involved in an effort to receive government recognition of her tribe.
Covert said one of the crucial steps to amending the narrative is legitimizing her people. Covert’s taken big steps in the public realm, working on projects with linguists and assembling literature with the Nevada County Library, but her biggest task lies before her.
“This is about land,” Covert added, “with the Native American people, it’s always about land.”
The Nisenan lived across what are now Nevada, Sierra, Yuba, Sutter and Placer counties. The arrival of gold miners in the mid-1850s led to competition for resources, a damaged environment and persecution. The Nisenan were pushed into what became the Nevada City Rancheria. However, in 1958, Congress removed the Nisenan’s status as a recognized tribe — a move that in the 1970s was determined to be illegal, according to Nevada County Library records.
According to National Geographic, the peace between pilgrims and the indigenous population that yielded the first Thanksgiving in 1621 lasted one generation. Although the United States federal government has since allocated a fraction of land (56 million of 2.43 billion acres) in various states to native tribes, the Nisenan tribe continues the fight for official recognition in Nevada County.
Covert said the Nisenan had relocated and condensed into the area of Cement Hill by the time treaties were on the table — the 1850s. Even then, the tribe was not given the 75 acres promised to its Chief Charley Cully under the General Allotment Act of 1887 until President Woodrow Wilson’s executive order in 1913.
Covert said unlike other designations meant for transplanted, or “homeless,” indigenous peoples, the Nevada City Rancheria was created for the people already there. Their home remained until 1958 amidst the “era of termination.” According to Covert, 44 rancherias in the state of California were terminated, and their land rights rescinded.
Over the course of the last 60 years, 41 of those 44 original rancherias in the state of California had their recognition and reservations returned.
“We’re one of the three at the end,” Covert said.
Covert said she and her tribe were in federal court for years before losing their case. The loss stemmed from a violation of the statute of limitations.
“We were the first one to lose our court case,” Covert said.
Now, Covert feels pressed for time.
“I always heard that there would be a sunset on new tribes getting recognized,” Covert said.
Covert said she does not have a lot, but feels called to action because some of her tribe members have less.
“It’s a privilege to be light skinned,” Covert said. “I have it a lot better than my family members. If I step up and do all I can in this lifetime, I can die knowing I’ve done all I could do.”
Covert is also the executive director of the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project. Covert said she believes state recognition is possible given the current political climate.
“Now’s the time,” Covert said. “We have such a ripe community — they get it without having to be bashed over the head.”
Darrel Cruz, cultural resources director of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California Historic Preservation Office, said that those conditions need to be taken advantage of when presented.
For Cruz, the elevator speech looks like this:
“Without the native people none of this would have happened. (White) Americans want to tell a story that this was a happy time between the natives and the (white) Americans, and whether or not that’s true, or fluxed, without the native people it would have never happened.
“You can slap them in the face and folks’ll still deny it.”
DOCUMENTING NISENAN HISTORY
Laura Pappani is the branch manager at Foley Library, and helped the Nevada County Library partner with the Nevada City Rancheria and California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project beginning in 2014.
“We created a collection of Nisenan-related research material,” Pappani said. “In recent writings, tribes got lumped, names were changed. There’s very few pieces that mention the Nisenan by name.”
Pappani said the collection, albeit small, includes unpublished dissertations written over the years, mostly from the UC school system.
More recently, Pappani worked with Covert and a linguist to create a Nisenan language picture book, Ani’to’o’pe. The book was written by Covert with translations and illustrations by Dr. Sheri Tatsch, a linguist that specializes in Nisenan. The book features a young Nisenan girl by the name of Ani’to’o’pe who dreams of the return of endangered species across the state of California. The book’s creation was funded by the state library, and will be distributed to all fourth graders across the county.
“Colonialists like Christopher Columbus are (taught as) heroes, and then you learn the truth and what it really comes down to is that we were fed lies that promote a certain person,” Covert said. “John Sutter put himself on the platform when we should celebrate the environment, the people, the animals and the air.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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