Let us not forget the Nisenan people
When I moved here in 1996, at the request of my father Leonard Lowry, I began my search for the surviving families of the indigenous community that once populated the hills of Nevada City.
My paternal family heritage is Mountain Maidu with blood ties to the Paiute, Washo, Modoc, Pit River tribes. Since the 1960s, because of participation in educational programs by elders from our region, our tribes and families are well documented by museums, colleges and historical institutions. The same is true in Humboldt County where, for decades, the local university and community have collaborated with California’s North Coast tribes to their mutual benefit.
How is it then that here in Nevada County, with a community college situated in an area of such rich historical significance to the state of California, that we know so little of the original Nisenan people who confronted the vanguard of the Gold Rush, in what are now the streets of Nevada City?
There are 9,000 years of human prehistory here and a stunning era to follow after 1849. Sierra College has the potential to become a Native-friendly campus with a qualified California Indian Studies department dedicated to a detailed examination of the continuum of cultural dynamics between the people of present-day Nevada City and the Gold Rush mining culture.
However, focusing solely on the painful part of Nisenan history would cause us to miss an opportunity to discover the beauty of the culture and its astonishing evolution through time to the present day. This is a triumph of survival and adaptation. As Native people we have an inherent understanding of the need to adapt. What we resist is assimilation. Assimilation equals the loss of cultural identity.
Native Americans across the Americas strive to assert and celebrate their tribal identities as their continents’ First Peoples. Today there is a flourishing of cultural revival and repatriation programs in the curatorial and educational sectors. Indian children are being taught to embrace their heritage with pride and dignity. Many of our young people hold degrees and are now working to bring about long overdue improvements to their respective communities.
But what of Nevada City’s original people who hailed from ancient Nisenan towns such as Oustomah, Wokodot, Kiwimdu, Wolou, K’ohkosa and countless others that once graced these lands?
It is only right and just that the Nisenan people receive acknowledgment from those who gained so much by their displacement. Perhaps Nevada City could invite the surviving families to come forward for recognition. I am not speaking of federal recognition, which is not in a city’s power, but a simple honoring and perhaps gesture of commitment to restore the Nisenan to their historic connection to this place we all call home.
I further call upon all tribal people living in Nevada County. I respectfully suggest that we need to take a step back, remember the teachings of our elders and forebears and adhere to the traditional practices and protocols concerning the territories of other tribes. We must seek out the descendants of Nevada County’s original inhabitants, invite them to sit down and eat, and then talk with them. We must secure their permission and blessing before we hold ceremonies on their lands. We must take care not to disturb the physical or spiritual structure of their sacred places. We must observe their unique connection to their ancestral home, as we would have them do for us in our own home places.
Mostly we should not create the impression in the minds of the general community that all Maidu, or indeed all Nisenan, are alike. They will understand that just as Grass Valley and Nevada City boast quite different identities, so do the indigenous peoples of California. The principles of observing territories among California Indian people have been in effect for millennia. They are critical to the maintenance of respect, the very pillar of peace.
I beseech this community as a whole to become educated about the Nisenan and their descendants, then give them what they have so long been denied, the respect and dignity of their restored identity, meaningful reconnection to their homelands and the hand of friendship offered in the spirit of cooperation and partnership.
I am told that the Odd Fellows Lodge on Broad Street did as much over a century and a half ago. By setting the word “Oustomah,” the Nisenan town that once stood where Nevada City is today, in bronze letters in the sidewalk, they literally cemented the connection of this land and its original people for history.
It is now the 21st century, and for us today, to allow that bond to fade into obscurity, would be to complete the cycle of what began in 1849 and wipe these people out for good.
Judith Lowry is a Native American artist and founder of California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project (CHIRP).
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