This July, WorldFest participants are welcomed to the home of the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe. The word Nisenan means “from among us.” WorldFest will take place under Nisenan skies, among the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevada. “Homoja bemi” is a traditional Nisenan greeting. The Tribe welcomes locals and visitors to enjoy this space and requests that it is treated with respect.
The land you’ll walk over at WorldFest has always been of great importance to the Nisenan people. Before it was the Nevada County Fairgrounds, it was a grand place of trade and commerce and represents an important piece of not only Nisenan history, but of California history. Before the Gold Rush, Nevada County’s first people thrived in their homelands and enjoyed a rich life, steeped in their ancient Nisenan culture. The Nisenan lived in pre-contact towns such as Waukaudok, Woloyu, Ustomah, Daspia and Kiwimdo in the western Sierra Nevada foothills for thousands of years.
Nisenan territory lay within the watersheds of the Yuba, Bear, and American rivers. Before these rivers were dammed, their flood patterns created a rich estuary where the Nisenan harvested plants and hunted game, including elk, which roamed the western foothills in large herds. They were wealthy, sophisticated people who, unlike other migratory tribes, did not have to move far to maintain their way of life, since California foothills boasted some of the most diverse plant and animal communities on the continent.
Nisenan life changed after the Gold Rush, which brought destruction to the rivers and wildlife of the western Sierra Nevada. The people escaped genocide and lost their ancestral homelands as tens of thousands of miners and settlers flooded the state.
In the early days of statehood, California Indians were denied basic human rights as the government squeezed wealth out of the land, regardless of the consequences. When California’s legislature first convened in 1850, it banned California Indians from voting. It also prevented anyone with one or more Indian parents from serving as jurors or testifying in trials against whites.
These political strategies were designed to rob the first people of their lands. In 1851, the United States made 18 treaties with California tribes that were never ratified, leaving California Indians in dire circumstances.
In 1887, a Nisenan headman, (chief) Charley Cully, secured land for his people in present-day Nevada City, on Cement Hill. In 1913, an executive order from President Woodrow Wilson designated the land as a Reservation to be held in Trust by the United States, ensuring the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan would be a Sovereign Nation and a federally recognized Tribe.
Even when the Nisenan had sovereignty over their ancestral lands, life in California was not easy. The Nevada City Rancheria Tribal Council chairman, Richard Johnson, remembers that in the 1950s, Nisenan people felt forced to keep quiet and try to blend in. He recalls a time when American Indian children were forcibly removed from their family homes, and calling attention to one’s indigenous identity could mean getting beaten or killed.
In 1964, the Nevada City Rancheria was illegally terminated, along with the rancherias of 43 other tribes in California. Today, 41 have had their federal status “restored” and have been given replacement lands–but the Nisenan are still denied their rights to sovereignty. Without federal status, the Nisenan Tribe cannot access essential programs for healthcare, housing, higher education and the repatriation of their dead.
Today, the Nisenan people have overcome many challenges. They are devoted to honoring their culture and nurturing their Tribe’s future.
This November, the Tribe looks forward to hosting their 9th Annual Nisenan Heritage Day event. Nisenan Heritage Day is co-sponsored by Sierra College. Guests are welcomed to experience traditional dancers, master basket weaving demonstrations, panels on a variety of topics important to the Indigenous and local community, art, Indian tacos, Nisenan language and much more.
Nisenan language revitalization is at the heart of the Nisenan’s connection to their homeland and their ancestors. Coming together as a community gives the Tribe a unique opportunity to help heal the scars of history and bring today’s Nisenan into the fabric of the local community.
The Nisenan will be hosting our Opening Ceremony at WorldFest and will ensure that the festival honors the land. The Nisenan also feel honored to welcome the other indigenous people into their homelands through the Global Indigenous Peoples Village and Global Stage and look forward to the many ceremonies, workshops, and performances happening there. Please visit the Global Indigenous Peoples Village page to learn more!