Louis Kelly

The Last Maidu Indian Chief


Bonnie Wayne McGuire


Louis Kelly, known for years around Nevada City as "Ol' Louie," was the last Maidu Indian Chief, and father of the last members of the Oustamah Tribe in this area. They inhabited this area of the foothills and occasionally ranged as far eastward as Nevada. Archeologists say the Maidu are known to have been here at least since 500 A.D. Often they spent the warm summer months in the high country searching for game, and then wintered below the snowline at the lower elevations. An 1870 Indian census counted 1700 Maidu in the Nevada City area, more than 20 years after the white men had arrived and many, if not most of the Indians had already moved to other areas. Louie told me that he spoke eight Indian dialects, and remarked that he didn't think anyone was interested in becoming Chief when he was gone. Although he was deaf, and his eyesight was failing, Louie was adept at reading lips and communicated well with written notes. We spent many hours discussing his life and local Indian lore. One day he handed me some feathers and asked if I'd make him a feather head dress. It's the one he's wearing in the picture above.

Louie was born July 7, 1886 at the Indian Campoodie, then located near Cement Hill north of Nevada City to Daniel (Kelly) and Lilly (Westfield). His mother died at his birth.  He was named Lalook, but he didn't know the meaning, or who named him. Perhaps it was Chief Pudnuse who lived with Louie's family when he was very young. The chief's wife was a relative of Louie's grandmother Betsy Westfield, the renowned basket weaver who saw the first white settlers arrive in this area. She died in 1923 at 105 years of age. There were two basic Maidu settlements in Nevada City. The village ran up the hill where Main Street is now located. At the top of the hill the Indian Rock is still in place. The Maidu called it their medicine rock and sunbathed on it regularly. One was Indian Flat near the Cement Hill reservation and the other was within what is now Nevada City. At one time there were five chiefs in the area; two in Nevada City, and one each in Chicago Park, Foresthill and auburn.

Photo of one of the last houses at Campoodie in the 1920s.

Louie learned the ancient ways, the lore and legends from his grandparents. He learned the gathering of herbs, hunting and above all, the health benefits of Big Times, Big Burns, and Big Cries. He attended local schools, worked as a miner and was a teamster for the old J. J. Jackson grocery store on Commercial Street (Osborn/Woods).

During local parades and Indian festivals, Chief Louis wore his ancestral gear of  head dress, drums and rattles. He was proud of his knowledge of Indian customs which he "kept in my head since there was no way of writing them down." He knew stories about every wild animal and remembered the cunning coyote and their weird cry as the "Biggest liars" in the forest. He hunted rabbits with his grandfather who would attract them by making a soft kissing sound. When they were near, they'd be shot with double pointed arrows. The two also hunted bears during their winter hibernation in caves near Nevada City.

 As a child, Chief Louis frequently sang ancient tribal songs for his classmates at the public school at Indian Flat. He regularly rode the horse drawn stage to Lake City, North Bloomfield and Malakoff  where he spent a month each year making beef jerky in a butcher shop in the town of Humbug. Jerked deer meet was a staple of the Maidu diet as were oak-acorns which were soaked, boiled or dried and stone ground into a flour meal. Louie said you couldn't beat trout cooked in acorn meal. "We ate acorns, nuts potatoes, wild vegetables, corn, snakes, mice and gophers"...he laughed. A relative once remarked that he really liked Louis' acorn stew. The Maidu diet also consisted of fruits, berries, roots, and tubers.

The early Maidu lived in small homes built of Cedar bark so that they'd shed water and had holes in their roofs to vent their fires. It wasn't easy for later Indians who inhabited this area. "Many Indians were told that if they homesteaded their land for five years it would be theirs....That was a damn lie." The Cement Hill area north of Nevada City where Louie was born was designated an Indian reservation during President Woodrow Wilson's administration (1913-21). The Indians didn't like it, and by the 1930's when the Bureau of Indian Affairs sold it, only two families remained. One family moved to Auburn and Louie's family moved to their new home...the Nevada City Dump. He was appointed tender of the dump, where he developed a reputation for making people dump in the right place. Louie always greeted us with a big smile. During his years working at the dump, Louie also worked on road building crews. He operated heavy equipment and was a member of the crew that first paved the Nevada City Highway.

Louie, whose wife Naomi passed away in 1964 (and son Lester in 1972), lived on in this tiny, dirt-floored shack while working for the Nevada City Department of Public Works 30 years until he retired. Eventually, with the help of his friend and local historian Doris Foley, he moved to the Holliday Hills Convalescent Hospital where I visited him. I was one among many. Ruth Ann Gardner's visits (1968-1977) resulted in her unpublished story "Life History of Lalook: Louis Kelly" available for study at The Searls Historical Library in Nevada City. Chief Louis passed away early January 1980 when he was 92. (I will be adding more to this story).