Shelly Covert: The world my ancestors knew | TheUnion.com
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Shelly Covert: The world my ancestors knew

Nature and Nisenan culture are deeply intertwined. Damage one and the other feels it. They are counterweights paired to balance each other. The Nisenan were able to strike that balance and thrived for thousands of years. All aspects of Nisenan life were dependent on the environment, who provided not only the means to survive, but to flourish.

Today we are engaged in cultural revitalization efforts for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe. Nearly every tradition and cultural practice is tied to a landscape and its resources that no longer exist.

Finding materials for making baskets and traditional foods is difficult and dramatically slows progress. We have found substitutions but will not be doing the sacred condor dances anytime soon. Creating the regalia requires an entire condor, and without a healthy population in California to harvest from, no sacred condor dances.



There was a time, less than five generations ago, when our Nisenan homeland was one of the most bountiful places in the world. Tribal families did not have to migrate to hunt herds because the herds walked right through our territory. Mild winters did not force seasonal relocation. Native grasses, some of which no longer grace this landscape, provided nutrition, as did a diverse insect population adding taste and spice to the Nisenan diet.

Resource organization was one of the many responsibilities of tribal leaders. The people took only what they needed from the environment and only when there was enough. Even today, they never take too much and always give thanks and respect in return.




Nisenan harvested materials to make life’s staples, medicine, baskets, musical instruments, hair decorations, ceremonial objects, game pieces, masks, food, building materials, hunting weapons, baby boards, shoes, jewelry, spiritual conduits, art, tools, regalia, antibiotics, healing tools, pain killers, boats, bridges, tattoo ink, tree jumps, and more.

During this time, before the use of fire to burn the land was outlawed in the 1800s, our forests were clean and clear. The lands were burned every other year to keep harmful insects in check and to control other animal populations. With a fire burning in each home most of the time, refuse did not build on the forest floor. Sticks were in high demand!

People waited for several species of trees to grow to build acorn granaries, boats, tools, and structures. Small trees were cut when they achieved the desired size and there was a waitlist for specific diameters of specific trees.

Large old trees were honored with status over small growth. Black oak were favored by our local Nisenan and was heavily traded for obsidian, abalone, and other desired resources.

Sacred regalia was made from condor, grizzly and black panther. Freshwater eel, salmon, antelope and elk were major staples for personal consumption and for trade.

Throughout life, and even in death, the Nisenan left little impact on the environment. Nisenan cremated the body, and everything the person owned was burned including their home. Their ashes were interned, and their spirit went on to ‘estom yanim. Here they would eat their first spirit food and then travel on to the Milky Way.

My ancestors learned over a great arc of time how to do it. They lived the ultimate sustainable life. They worked with respect in this small, geographic territory, encouraging growth here, discouraging growth there, always allowing nature to remain itself.

They danced to turn the seasons. They knew the spirits and understood that all life is equal. Their bodies were not equipped for the wild: no claws, no fur, no fangs, poor eyesight, poor hearing, poor sense of smell …. Yet they succeeded.

I, by comparison, am even less equipped than they, considering my dependency and addiction to energy, fake lighting, computers, and stores. 

Somehow, the Nisenan survived while our sacred environment, who provided so much for so long, is gone.

Deep inside the tribe there remains a sadness for this loss. It is much like missing a close relative or love that has passed away or like that homesick feeling. Maybe, by sharing the memory of the world my ancestors knew, we can begin to envision its re-emergence together. And maybe, just maybe, we will strike that balance, one more time.

Shelly Covert is the spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe. She sits on the Tribal Council and is the community outreach liaison. She is also the executive director of the tribally guided, non-profit, CHIRP (the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project), whose mission is to preserve, protect and perpetuate Nisenan culture. 

Shelly works closely with the elders, Tribal Council, and tribal members to identify the areas of greatest need. Because the history of Nisenan existence remains excluded from history books and mainstream education, undoing the erasure of the Nisenan has been at the forefront of tribal efforts and a focus for CHIRP. The Nevada City Rancheria was one of forty-four Tribes “terminated” by Congress between 1958 and 1965. Today, they are one of three rancherias that have yet to have federal status returned. CHIRP advocates for the restoration of ederal recognition through community outreach, curriculum development, and event production. Shelly is also an artist, musician, and culture protector for her tribe.


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