A Tribal History ‘Brighter Than Gold’

Spurred by the disappearance of a historic drum, Shelly Covert fights to restore the Nisenan’s culture and federal recognition.

shelly covert
Max Whittaker

Shelly Covert seeks to preserve and widen knowledge of the Nisenan tribe. “We are bringing visibility to our people and fighting our way back from complete erasure.”

Upon the streams and rivers and under the oaks and ponderosa pines, the people built their lives. They were known as the Nisenan, and their language, forking and branching with dialectical difference as one crossed watersheds, ran from the low country upon the banks of what is now the Sacramento River to the forested ridges just west of Lake Tahoe. Their villages were named and known, and their stories were the stories of place, grown from the land itself.

Shelly Covert grew up in the topography where Nisenan villages once bustled with life. It is called Nevada County now. Its seat, Nevada City, population 3,166, was founded during the gold rush, and indeed visiting the mountain town today is like stepping back into the mid-19th century. As for the Indigenous people who lived in the region for generations uncountable: what happened to them could be called genocide. Until very recently, there were few who even knew the name of the tribe, its presence having been effectively erased from the memory of the town so completely that it would have been easy to believe that gold miners were the first people to ever walk under those pines and along those creeks and rivers.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

Covert hopes to correct the record and enlarge people’s understanding of the Nisenan of today. She is a dark-haired woman in her mid-50s, with a joyful laugh, who talks eagerly about her heritage. Her people come from both sides of Nevada County’s history. Her mother’s side is largely Nisenan; her father’s, of European ancestry. Despite the tragedy that began with the gold rush, the tribe was federally recognized by the Woodrow Wilson administration, which resulted in the establishment of a rancheria and some access to federal funds. At least there was, for a time, a physical location held for the Nisenan, however diminished. But an ongoing push for the assimilation of Indigenous peoples eventually led to the federal government changing its policies regarding the recognition of Indian sovereignty, and in 1964, the Nevada City Rancheria was dissolved, the property sold. Over time, the tribe was all but forgotten. The Nisenan who remained were scattered around the region. The center was gone.

nisenan shell shaker
A traditional Nisenan shell shaker used during singing and ceremonial dances. The shells would have been obtained through trade with coastal tribes.
Max Whittaker

Growing up in the forestlands north of town, Covert made connections to her Nisenan heritage largely through the influence of her grandmother, who directed her to spend time with a large tribal drum, many generations in age, that was then part of a local museum display. Covert had visited the drum several times when one day, after several years away, she entered the museum to discover that the drum had disappeared. No one seemed to know whether it had been sold, lost, or stolen. “I’m not an emotional person,” Covert tells me, “but I was really upset.” Adding to her distress was the fact that the museum director did not have any specific knowledge about the Nisenan people, a situation further complicated by the competing claims of a Plumas County tribe incorrectly identified as indigenous to the Nevada City area.

That moment in the museum started Covert on what she considers her lifework: the revitalization of the Nisenan people and their culture, both for the tribe itself and for the local community. Perhaps in shame that the drum had vanished under his watch, the museum director, Wally Hagaman, became an immediate ally, setting the local historical society on the track of Nisenan history, research that resulted in a formal resolution in support of the Nevada City Rancheria, paving the way for both the City of Nevada City and the Nevada County Board of Supervisors to follow suit. Out of that initial activity came the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project, formed by Covert and others. A charitable organization with two full-time employees (one of whom is Covert), CHIRP is tasked with the research, documentation, and preservation of the area’s Nisenan tribe, a project that ultimately involves relearning who the Nisenan were and who they are. Covert and her allies, with guidance from a Native-majority board of directors, study oral histories and anthropological reports and consult with the few experts they have been able to find in the academic world, one of whom, Dr. Sheri Tatsch, has made a study of the various dialects of Nisenan. Because the tribe no longer has any fluent speakers of its Indigenous language, such research in lexicography, grammar, and speech is essential to the Nisenan’s cultural survival.

But the largest piece of the puzzle has yet to be secured: federal recognition, a process that can take decades, particularly in the era of Indian gaming, when many might assume that a tribe’s desire for such certification equates with a desire to own and operate a casino. Covert has been working on the Nevada City Nisenan’s status for 15 years; before that, her mother led the effort. All told, they spent 8 years in federal court only to have their case dismissed owing to a legal technicality. But if Covert is deterred, she does not show it, nor is she interested in establishing a casino. Her goals are “sovereignty” and “self-determination,” she tells me. “Federal recognition would mean we’d have access to all of the federal Indian programs: housing, education, health, economic development, as well as federal grants.” She also hopes that the tribe might reclaim some portion of the lands that were taken from it. One step toward that has been the creation of the Ancestral Homelands Reciprocity Program, a grassroots project to encourage area businesses and local citizens to financially contribute to the tribe in acknowledgment of the land upon which all of Nevada City was built. The program now has 238 contributors, and the funds directly support CHIRP’s mission.

Conservative estimates place Nevada City’s pre–gold rush Nisenan population at around 9,000. At present, the roll of the Nevada City Nisenan tribe lists 167 members: the current holders of a memory and a culture that are, day by day, being rebuilt, being restored. One can find Nisenan place-names on some of the local signage now: a creek (daspah seyo), a river (‘uba seyo), a town (‘ustoma). These are small steps, perhaps, but they are reminders that these places were named long before gold was discovered. “We are bringing visibility to our people and fighting our way back from complete erasure,” Covert says. “There is a story here that shines brighter than gold. Together we can ensure this history is never again forgotten.” •

Christian Kiefer is the author of five books, including the novel Phantoms.
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