The Nisenan People Reception and Museum Opening

( Saturday April 24, 2010)


We were invited to a special reception honoring The Nisenan People of the foothills and the opening of the Restored Nisenan Collection in the Nevada City Firehouse Museum. Unfortunately, Mel wasn't able to go and missed out on a very interesting event. There were many speakers who shared research, history, photos, and basket making abilities of our local Native people. Frank and Vince opened with a song, followed by recognition and the introduction of the Elder Families. Speakers Sheri J. Tatsch, Ph.D. (Indigenous Consulting Services) gave us the history and locations of all the Indian tribes that once populated the foothills. Tanis Thorne (Director of Native American Studies Program U.C. Irvine) educated us about "Federal Recognition & Termination of the Nevada City Nisenan." 

Then we had a refreshment and visiting break, before the next presentations, and I got to thank my friend Judith for all the work putting this together. Everything was wonderful just like she promised it would be.

The table I shared with one of the opening songsters.

The Elder's table.

Louis Kelly's grand daughter Rose on the right. Her brother Warren was one of my classmates at Nevada City Elementary.

Richard Johnson is the chairman of the Nevada City Rancheria. He made statements at both GV and NC city council meetings to proclaim the Nisenan are the true indigenous people of the foothills.

Following the refreshment break, Dugan Aguilar, the renowned Native American Photographer presented his "Deeper Than Gold" slide show of the first families of the Sierra foothills. He likes black and white photography. Here's some examples.



Last, but not least...Susan Campbell (Native American Educator California Indian Basketry & Bark House Construction) gave us a entertaining and interesting talk about her experiences basket weaving. The afternoon closes with some special recognitions and gratitude for all those who made it happen. Then we head for the Nevada City Firehouse Museum to see what they've done there.


The museum collection is very interesting and well done.

"The Campoodie of Nevada City-The Story of a Rancheria" by Tanis C. Thorne looks like some good reading. Judith insists I take one on the table above. In the book's Introduction Tanis wrote, "While the tragic tale of the destruction of the Native Californians is generally known through the work of Robert Heizer and others, much less has been written about the lives of the California Indians who as individuals and groups adapted to life as a marginalized people in the years following the Gold Rush. The history of the long-lived Indian "campoodi" (or Indian village or encampment) of Nisenan (Maidu) people on the outskirts of Nevada City is one of these untold stories." The following are some of the things from the author's book describing what our local natives suffered during the gold rush. Betsy, a Nisenan born at Oustomah, recalled that the Indians were afraid of the rapid white population growth after 1848. During the summer of 1850 Nevada City boomed; it's population went from 1000 to 6000. It was regarded as having the richest diggings in California. Nevada County had a population of 20,000 by 1856. Betsy related that as the gold excitement advanced, the Indians were hastily moved again and again. Promises were made to give material aid for land surrendered, but were not kept.

Eventually the hydraulic mining muddied the streams so they yielded few fish, wild game was depleted, and the acorn crop failed adding to the Indian's miseries. Federal investigator W. P. Crenshaw estimated the Nisenan population of the foothills decreased fifty percent from 1848 to 1854. He attributed the decline to radical change in diet and living conditions, alcohol and disease. Some sympathetic townspeople, ranchers and farmers tried to help the starving Indians. Betsy bitterly recalled that the townspeople were indifferent to the Indian's suffering and rapid depopulation. Appeals to help the sick and indigent were ignored.

During the Indians struggle, they were divided into different camps, but only the Nisenan of Nevada City received federal recognition. The location of the rancheria was a heavily-mined area, honeycombed with tunnels for lode and placer mining and laced with legal claims for surface and subsurface rights. An Indian named Charles Cully (left) made a permanent claim to land below Cement Hill under the terms of the Dawes Act of 1887, which allowed homeless, non-reservation Indians to apply for homestead allotments. Mining had slackened, and many claims abandoned. Cully's site was close to town, limited mining jobs and lumbering. It had water, flat acreage and a warm exposure. The local Nisenan were eager to solidify a permanent land base and pooled resources to pay for the land survey. Originally, the campoodie was called "Pudnuse's camp" after their chief. Many Indians in other camps moved to the Cement Hill campoodie, of which Charles Cully was chief from the 1890's to 1911. What follows is a warning of what happens to innocent people who step into the legal arena of predators. The clouded title of the allotment created confusion, animosity, and legal conflicts for decades to come.

However, the story reveals wonderful people like Belle Douglas (right), one of the town's Native Daughters, who became one of the Indian's most vocal advocates who stood up to those in government that were supposed to protect them (but didn't), and those taking advantage of them. On the lighter side, I love journalist C. B. Glassock's description that "her laugh would stir a movie sound-truck into a convulsion of mirth...She makes me feel that Nevada City was a laughing town."

Eventually, Special Agent Calvin Asbury wrote a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs noting the interest by "leading citizens," and made the recommendation that the land be set aside as a permanent home for the Indians. Asbury's letter and petition from the "leading citizens" inspired the Secretary of the Interior to write a letter to the President May 3, 1913 recommending the cancellation of the Cully allotment and the creation of an executive order reservation. On May 6, 1913, the 75 1/2 acres were reserved for the dozen Indians of Nevada City's Indian village. These colonies were called "rancherias." However, the disputes over mineral rights, water rights, or rights of way continued. Politics as usual, and not enough personnel and budget to deal with the problems.

The story continues with a foray into "Chief" Louis Kelly's struggle with harassment, thieves, and government inefficiency regarding the tribal Rancheria land between the mid-1920's and early 1930's. Infuriated by the stalemate, Belle Douglas wrote a blistering letter to the Superintendent, scolding the Bureau for it's neglect and inefficiency... "Investigating is the best thing they do and that doesn't seem to feed starving people!" Tanis Thorne's wonderful little documentary of local history tells it as it was, while inadvertently unmasking the dual attributes of human nature.