Original stewards: Tours of ‘Uba Seo art gallery offered Monday
“Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians (...) reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.”
Growing up, Nisenan spokeswoman Shelly Covert’s birthday — Oct. 10 — often fell on the second Monday of October, the same day the federal government christened Columbus Day.
“My classmates used to tell me, ‘You’re so lucky,’” Covert said.
Even with the modern name change, the spokeswoman for 146 living members of the Nisenan tribe said the holiday never inspired the feeling of good fortune.
Covert said the federal recognition of Christopher Columbus — without context — legitimizes colonialism by perpetuating the idea of the white savior and manifest destiny.
“That it’s called that in the first place is a little absurd with the horrible things Columbus did to the American people on his way,” Covert said.
People need to study more than one perspective of the Portuguese man’s arrival to the Americas, Covert said, and speak of it frankly.
“I wouldn’t be bothered if people said, ‘If it weren’t for Columbus and his violence, we wouldn’t be here,’” Covert said, adding that commemorating this particular historical figure means confronting uncomfortable facts and graphic images.
Covert said the colonizer’s violence is more comprehensible if she considers the hostility or hardship faced in their own homeland, but said Americans need to own all of the narrative, no matter how unsavory.
“How can we be proud of this country when we have this gross legacy hanging over our heads?” she asked.
Covert said the Nisenan’s own allegiance to the land runs so deep that upon the introduction to the concept of land ownership, tribe members with citizenship still pending extended their loyalties to the United States in the form of military conscription.
“Most of my family would absolutely say, ‘I love this country,’ and we have the best hopes for it,” Covert said.
Covert herself dedicated her life to recovering the truth — as well as the federal recognition that her tribe lost 63 years ago.
The Nisenan, contained and relegated to the Nevada City Rancheria in 1938, are living descendants of a native Californian people that once occupied the whole of the American, Bear and Yuba rivers for over 13,000 years. Now, they are one of three remaining tribes that have yet to regain land rights lost to 44 tribes across the state in the late 1950s, amid the “era of termination.”
“It’s a bummer, if I think about it too much,” Covert said. “We deserve to be unterminated like everyone else. It hurts me in a different way.”
The recognition is partly symbolic, Covert said, but the tangible benefits contingent on the recognition have potential to benefit her people in real, impactful ways.
Covert said she was thrilled when President Joe Biden appointed the first Native American congresswoman, Deb Haaland, to be his Secretary of Interior, but cannot articulate the new kind of frustration and disappointment experienced as progressive, indigenous-facing polices are developed but remain inapplicable to her own family.
Haaland began a Truth and Healing Commission, Covert said, “but because we’re not federally recognized, we’re not being invited.” The same goes for Biden’s tribal summits. “We’re not on the magic list,” Covert said, even though members of her family still struggle with the childhood trauma endured as they were torn from their families to attend boarding schools with stated missions to “kill the Indian, not the man.”
Covert said she just submitted a stack of documents she estimates is 5-inches thick to the Native American Heritage Commission. Even if acknowledged there, state recognition will not give the tribe access to social and educational services it needs, Covert explained, though it will add to their struggle on the federal level.
Covert said legitimizing the tribe by helping the Nisenan regain self-sovereignty and land lost will have indeterminate benefits to all parties involved. Covert said the Nisenan tradition — rooted in mutual respect and the spirit of gratitude — has the power to influence contemporary politics, art and spirituality vis á vis the tribe’s relationship with nature.
“Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians (…) reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith,” Covert said, per the famous indigenous advocate and lawyer Felix Cohen.
Covert’s canary is singing. The Nisenan spokeswoman is offering tours of ‘Uba Seo, the Rancheria’s Visibility through Art project, all day Monday.
What remains, Covert said, is for Nevada County’s proverbial miners to listen to the canary’s cries.
“All that has happened makes me wonder — how many times can someone fall through the cracks or be overlooked after all that has been done?“ Covert said. ”Yet, we survive here in the homelands.“
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at email@example.com
Spokeswoman Shelly Covert said Nevada County residents interested in learning — and doing — more should look out for a linguistic intern to help her recover more of the tribe’s history.
Covert encouraged interested residents to contribute to the tribe’s Ancestral Homelands Reciprocity Program.
Covert also encouraged any Cement Hill landowners interested in developing a working relationship with the land’s stewards pre-colonialism to reach out to her directly.
What: ‘Uba Seo – Visibility Through Art Tour
Who: California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project
Where: 225 Broad St., Nevada City
More info: Shelly Covert, tribal spokesperson of the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan and executive director of CHIRP, will welcome participants for a 30- to 40-minute tour of the current Visibility Through Art exhibit on display at ‘Uba Seo. There will be a Q&A, time allowing. The tour is free of charge. Spots are limited. Masks are required.
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