Some tribal elders estimate that in the 1850s there were 7,000 Nisenan Native Americans living in what is now considered Nevada City, California. According to the official tribal rolls, only 147 Nisenan live there today.
While the Gold Rush dominates the town’s historical register, it’s the story of the Nisenan tribe that begs to be told. Their history is one marked by pain and oppression caused by European settlers and promises broken by the United States government. But they are also a people that personify perseverance. Against all odds, the Nisenan still exist.
“[We had] an entire society that was here thousands of years before the Gold Rush,” Shelly Covert, the tribal council secretary of the Nisenan Tribe, told us. “I’ve been trying to raise our tribe’s visibility [today], but it’s really tough.”
Today, the US government recognizes 562 Native American tribes, like the Apache of Oklahoma and the Blackfeet of Montana. This recognition provides federal protection for their reservations and gives them access to financial support. Unfortunately, the Nisenan are not one of these tribes.
The Nisenan's lack of recognition can be traced back to the liquidation of the Rancheria System in California, which initially granted tracts of land to Native American tribes and offered them federal support. Congress slated 41 California Rancherias for termination pursuant to the Rancheria Act of 1958. In the last 25 years, judicial decisions and settlements have restored 27 of the 38 Rancherias that were terminated under the original Rancheria Act. Additional tribes have since been restored through Acts of Congress. However, according to Covert, the Nisenan were the first tribe to be denied restoration of their Rancheria in 2015. This denial was attributed to their application happening outside the six-year statute of limitations, even though all of the tribes that have successfully restored their Rancherias did so outside of that mandated time frame.
Covert said this denial has caused the tribespeople remaining in Nevada County to miss out on "federal health and housing services, education programs, job assistance programs, etc.” This is troubling, considering that 87 percent of the Nisenan people live at or below California’s poverty line, according to internal tribal surveys. “We also have extreme rates of under education and under employment, in addition to high rates of drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, suicide, and poor health,” Covert noted.
Regaining recognition both federally and culturally has become the primary mission of the Nisenan tribespeople because they believe it will help them reverse some of these disconcerting trends. But it’s hard for some to seek out recognition after years of trying to evade oppression.
“In the 50s, our people started getting really quiet,” Richard Johnson, the Tribal Council chairman, said. “We didn’t trust the government—they’d come in and take your children. They did it to me. They did it to my mother and my two aunts. So you were quiet, and you didn’t go around and brag that you were Indian. That was the last thing you’d do, because you’d get beat up or killed. Our ceremonies became ours and only ours. We didn’t say, ‘We’re proud to be an Indian.’”
This issue of visibility noted by Johnson is a broader problem facing many Native American people in the US. Michael Ramirez, a young member of the Nisenan Tribe who founded Indigenous Insight, a nonprofit focusing on native representation in the media, told us, “When you Google ‘African Americans,’ for instance, you get Obama. When you Google ‘Native Americans,’ you get these outdated photos from the 1880s that propagate the idea that we disappeared in the 1900s—and, more to the point, that we passively just let everything go.”
Today, the remaining Nisenan tribespeople are trying to reclaim their identity. On November 11, they hosted their eighth annual Nisenan Heritage Day in a local college gymnasium. The celebration featured the theme “Visions of Belonging and the Need for Home.” At the event, Linguist Sherri Tasch led a panel on efforts to revive the Nisenan language. Guest were treated to ceremonial toto (social) dances. And attendees participated in water-tight basket weaving, for which the Nisenan are renowned. Each tribal family had patterns unique to their kin and they made their baskets of local materials such as willow, redbud, sedge root, and bracken fern.
Beyond events like Heritage Day, the Nisenan are also trying to re-establish representation of their tribe through an updated curriculum for local educators.
“It’s worth the thought and time to build a truly reflective curricula for our people here, because nobody knows what a Nisenan person looks like. I can close my eyes and think of a Sioux with the big headdress and their ponies, but if I were to ask you to think of a Nisenan woman in her regalia, it’s a blank. Nobody knows, because it’s not visible.”
Members of the Nisenan tribe also meet once a week with a linguist where their lesson plans are organized around what they want to say. The revitalization of their language is regarded as a priority that is as vital as their connection to the land itself.
“I've always been told by my elders that when we speak our language, other beings understand: the water, the trees, the animals. We must use our language, as that is our direct connection to Mother Earth. Using our songs, our dances, and our ceremonial lifeways brings it full circle,” said Wanda Batchelor, a member of the Nisenan Tribe.
“Our culture is so fragile right now. Every time we lose an elder, we have to wonder: What are the things we didn’t ask her, the things that aren’t in a book somewhere, the things that aren’t in a curriculum yet?” Covert said.
Within this tenuous framework, the Nisenan understand that being recognized by the government won’t fix the problems they face, but it would provide what Covert called “a safety net” for the tribe. To get that federal recognition, the tribe plans to lobby Congress on behalf of their cause and has been coordinating efforts with the California Heritage Indigenous Research Project (CHIRP) nonprofit.
“My personal goal is to be represented,” Ramirez told us. “To look around and see faces like mine. In a utopian future, I won’t have to explain to people that, ‘Yeah, I exist—I’m still here.’”
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