Shelly Covert proudly identifies as Nisenan, an Indigenous tribe whose ancestral lands are situated in the Yuba, American and Bear River watersheds in what is now Nevada County. Her identity also ties directly into her day job as spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe and executive director of the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project, a nonprofit created in 2015 that aims to preserve, protect and perpetuate the Nisenan culture.
The Nisenan tribe lived for thousands of years before the gold rush — which began in 1848 — brought widespread devastation to their people and the land they had inhabited. Most of the Nisenan were displaced, enslaved or killed during the quest of white Americans and Europeans to strike it rich. Today, the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe has a population of about 150 members, and it is not federally recognized.
Created by an executive order of President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, the Nevada City Rancheria was terminated by Congress in 1964. (At least 40 other rancherias were also terminated by the California Rancheria Termination Acts of the 1950s and ’60s.) The tribe has been on a mission to get its federal recognition restored ever since.
In 2018, CHIRP acquired a 32-acre property on Deer Creek near Nevada City; the $600,000 grant used to purchase the land include strict land-use restrictions, Covert says, so the land will remain open and undeveloped forever. Comstock’s spoke to Covert — who was born and raised in Grass Valley — about her work with the tribe and why it matters.
Tell me about your path to becoming spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe and executive director of CHIRP.
As for becoming spokesperson for the tribe, our family is from a long line of leaders from before the gold rush. As I got older, I saw my mom, her fight to have the tribe federally restored because we are a terminated California rancheria. Before her was my grandpa, he worked on these issues. It’s just such a long-standing injustice lingering out there, and then it fell to me as I got older. It’s a lot of responsibility and not a lot of fame and glory, I guess you could say. And I say that with all respect to the position (as tribal spokesperson) and my family.
As for becoming executive director of CHIRP, that started with the help of a local friend and a very famous Native American artist Judith Lowry. CHIRP was created to be a vehicle — until the tribe gets federal recognition — that allows us to receive donations, write for grants, implement needed programs, and do the business side of all the things that need to happen for the tribe. CHIRP is guided by the Tribe and becoming executive director of CHIRP was … to keep the organization in line with the tribe and its needs, and that ended up being a really great vehicle to keep the two linked together and in sync with one another. CHIRP’s mission is to preserve, protect, and perpetuate Nisenan culture.
I was hoping you could tell me about the undertaking to acquire the 32 acres on Deer Creek and the significance of acquiring the land.
Nevada City was originally working with The Sierra Fund to take that land, and I know there were a lot of years put into testing the land and preparing the grounds. … For whatever reason, that didn’t work out, and CHIRP and the tribe happened to be in the right place at the right time. I had been building networks and community and partnerships in town locally … for people to know who the Nisenan are and to be engaged in the big conversations that are going on about the legacy mining and the impacts. …
So working with The Sierra Fund and knowing some of the other folks that have worked on that (land acquisition) for quite some time, when the opportunity presented itself, we talked to the tribe and talked to the CHIRP board. Luckily, when we created the 501(c)(3), intentionally I checked the little box that said, yes, we would take land and boats and planes and all the different things that nonprofits can do. And it came to pass. It was a lot of work. But one of the biggest things was the tribe realizing that there’s access to land. Now, that is something that’s taking a long time to sink in for people even still, and we’ve had it since 2018. …
Everything that CHIRP does, every organization that we engage with, especially around the environment and the legacy of the gold rush mining, brings us back to the question of: Well, where are the Nisenan? What happened to them and why don’t they have land? I think people right now are ready. Because of all the social justice conversations going on, people are finally ready to start listening and being curious. What happened (when) gold was discovered in the Nisenan waterways and the genocide of the people has never been talked about here widely. … I used to be always scared to say all these things, but time is short, I suppose, and I’m not getting any younger, and the conversations need to be had. I know the moment’s right now to have conversations with people and (the genocide of Indigenous people) is a fact that should be known; it should be a pillar of our social justice conversations in California.
I’m curious about the acquisition of this land. Does CHIRP have any other projects in mind to acquire additional land?
There are models out there (for) tribes who are not federally recognized who have figured out something else, the other track to sort of move them along the lines. I know we need something similar. We’re so small. We don’t have a lot of capacity. …
The landscape holds the entire culture for us. … We need a place with a view … for people to see because we need a little sampling, like one of those Whitman candy box samplers, of the landscape, so we can have access to these things again for the culture. Everything the Nisenan people did is based in the environment. … (We can’t bring) back something that was almost completely broken, like our sacred condor feathers. … We can’t harvest condors, and (we lost) the salmon, and the huge elk herds and antelope that used to be in our area. It’s inaccessible now.
I think having access to the land is so important, but it’s the capacity issue. … I just spoke with someone who wanted to bequeath their house or their land to us when they pass. So I’m looking at a partnership with the local land trust and hoping that maybe we can incubate something there to build the capacity so when people … come forward and want to help with land acquisition or somebody wants to give the land to us, we are able to … say, “Yes, please,” and take it (and) be able to care for it. … Land and housing is something also that comes with federal recognition. And so we’re again trying to find these creative ways to get things done.
I wanted to ask you more about that. So in 1964, the U.S. terminated your reservation and took away the federal status. How do you get that restored? What do you have to do?
Congress passed legislation in 1958, which was the California Rancheria Termination Act, and they terminated 44 (rancheria communal lands belonging to) tribes in California (including three terminations prior to 1958), and they were of the mindset that — quote unquote — the Indians were “civilized” now and didn’t need to have a reservation. … It’s been a long process. … Unfortunately, three tribes out of those 44 have not been restored yet and the Nisenan rancheria is one of them. … We were in federal court for eight years and, unfortunately, we lost our court case due to a six-year statute of limitations, which no other California rancheria had brought up against them, and all those other rancherias that were restored here in California were also outside a six-year statute. … If you are going to use the statute of limitations, why didn’t they use it in the first week? Of course, we used eight years of our lives with that outcome.
There are other administrative processes other tribes have tried, and some have been successful, some haven’t. … We were (originally) recognized through presidential executive order from Woodrow Wilson. I think his wife (Edith Wilson) had a lot to do with that because she was really tight with the suffragettes up here in Nevada City. It’s always about who you know. (Former Sen. Kamala) Harris actually knows about Nevada City Rancheria because she was a senator here and now, of course, she’s vice president and maybe she could talk in President Biden’s ear and who knows how these magical things come to pass. Maybe we could be restored by presidential executive order.
I do believe a huge part of this conversation is that spread of knowledge, of answering that question of: This is Nisenan land, and where are they and what happened to them? That’s the question that leads us into everything. It leads people to open up their — I don’t want to sound cheesy — hearts to join in our campaign for support, to spread the word, let everybody know that we’re out there trying really hard to influence somebody, somewhere to listen and to do something good when it’s just replacing our name on a list. Literally, that’s all it is, is putting Nevada City Rancheria back on the list of federally recognized tribes. Then we have access to housing and education, health, economic development. Some of the environmental monies that are out there for clean energy, broadband for tribes is just incredible. And we can’t apply for those grants (because) we’re not federally recognized.
We often hear about the importance of involving Indigenous people in the conversation of how to deal with the legacy of mining, especially when it comes to ecological knowledge. But do you feel like that’s actually been happening and your voice has been included?
Because we’re not federally recognized, our voice is very small. I think where we live, we have a lot of really good people up here who are starting to understand. They care and are reaching out even when they’re not mandated to because we’re not federally recognized. The issues that I see … is because of private land ownership, because the federal government has control over the forests, because we have freeways and roadways and electrical infrastructure, nature is so boxed up and cut up that (continuity) of the landscape doesn’t exist anymore. All the animals and people and everything we used to tend to in the past (aren’t) there anymore. …
We were almost extinguished during the gold rush, (so) there’s almost a morality to it that, yeah, you should involve the tribes. Of course, it’s important. A lot of times that knowledge has been lost for some tribes because of the genocide and because assimilation was successful. So sometimes when the door is open and these different entities are asking for this tribal ecological knowledge, sometimes … the knowledge is gone. And it feels like mining for information. After all these years of (us) saying, “Don’t do that; you can’t just cut the trees down. Mother Earth is sacred. That’s our mother. Don’t cut the forest down. Don’t kill the animals. Don’t dam all the rivers,” and now because we’re living in a tinderbox here in Northern California, people are looking for the Native Americans for the solution.
While this is incredibly important and there is still so much to offer, sometimes it just feels bad, like, you know, you kill everybody, you kill everything and then — and this isn’t blaming one specific person or one specific anything, it’s just the way it is now — to look at the Native Americans for the answer on one side of the coin, that’s hard. It feels almost ridiculous. And then on the other side of the coin, like I said, it’s morally the least you could do is involve them in their own geographical territories where they’ve been for thousands of years and, most importantly, where their people are all buried. Generations and generations of people are buried in these landscapes.
With all that being said, I think there’s a huge arc, depending on what entity you’re talking about, what organization you’re talking about, if they truly are engaging the Native American community in these moments when they’re supposed to and what they’re doing with that. You’re supposed to do consultation with Indian tribes, which in your heart should be with good intentions. You’re supposed to go and really care and not just check a box off on those lists. But I think a lot of times it’s mostly just checking a box off on a list. … I hope that changes. Tahoe National Forest is really good. They’ve got some employees who truly care, and … they understand the landscape of the gold rush and what the tribes experienced and … we navigate that really, really well together. Some other organizations, not so much.
How are you going to go back to a traditional way of life when things are in the state they are? I understand we have to start somewhere, but rather than the task of starting, I wish it could be in the heart where it started, that people could understand that the sentient lifeform animals are so important for the landscape; they are part of this balance. Humans, we’re supposed to burn our dead before they pass on (to the afterlife) so their spirits can go to our sacred mountain we know as the Marysville Buttes. We know it as ‘estom yanim and it is the sacred place our spirit goes to after death before going onto the Milky Way. And I just don’t see how we get back to this ancient knowledge.
So when you get into these moments of tribal consultation, especially if one of the organizations is only doing it to check a box, I think Native American people end up in a really strange conundrum like, oh, now you’re asking me. … But then at least we are being asked and included. … If we were federally recognized it would be different because we’d be on that government footing. Like, when we’re talking about consultations and talks on Centennial Dam, they’re trying to propose (on the border of Placer County and Nevada County near Colfax), we couldn’t even talk with the Army Corps of Engineers because they’re federal and they can’t consult with a non-recognized tribe. We could make comments, but we couldn’t officially consult in our own homelands. Some organizations are good. There (are) a couple here locally that we’ve worked with that have gone beyond to really involve the tribe.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
The Nisenan people, we had our own religion, we had our own society, we had our own economy, and that economy was completely based in nature … this whole trade system of nature, and our economy was strong and our people here were extremely wealthy, and that was just completely destroyed. You come in with extractive mining that destroys the land that was the beauty and was the trade, and things can just go so quickly. Something that had been around for thousands and thousands of years got replaced almost overnight with something else. I think we can do that in reverse. We can get back to some resemblance of what it used to be and (an) understanding that if there’s no clean air, no clean water, no clean soil, we’re probably not going to be around as humans very long.
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Over the past two decades, a coordinated effort focused on science and policy, education and awareness, and an entrepreneurial approach to workforce development has been underway to come to grips with the lasting legacy of the mining age.