NEVADA CITY, Calif. – An ancient Maidu riverside ceremony called “Calling Back the Salmon” was part of Nevada City’s Indigenous Peoples’ Days observances. Due to a depletion of the salmon population, West Coast salmon fishing has been all but terminated for this season.
The three-day celebration, hosted by the Tsi-Akim Maidu Tribe, takes place every year around Columbus Day. This year’s event began Oct. 10 with the dedication of a grinding rock on a small piece of land donated to the Tsi-Akim Maidu. Before the Gold Rush, a Maidu Village sat near the banks of Deer Creek in what is now downtown Nevada City.
At the ceremony, children pulled back a blanket to reveal the grinding rock.
“The acorn, ground on rocks like this, was the main staple for Indian people for hundreds of years,” said Don Ryberg, tribal chairman. “For the grinding holes to become this deep, generations upon generations used this rock. The acorns, once ground and leached, were used to make everything from soup to bread. Untold generations are symbolized by this rock.
“Maidu people believe that everything is living, even the rocks. All grinding rocks are so valuable and sacred because these rocks have heard the prayers, the songs, as well as felt blood from people’s hands caused by the grinding, inside these holes. This makes the rock powerful.”
When the California Gold Rush turned northern California into a destination for thousands of gold-seekers, lured from around the world by dreams of wealth, the Native population was decimated.
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The so-called ’49ers brought alcohol, disease and greed to the people they found in California. Living in the interior, where Spanish explorers had scarcely touched, the Natives found themselves invaded by prospectors who covered every canyon and crevice in their search for gold.
In a year, the region’s indigenous peoples were outnumbered. Game was slaughtered and the clear streams became choked with mining debris.
One early prospector described it like this: “The poor aborigines were abandoned to the mercy of a number of semi-barbarous white men, and died and were killed off with frightful rapidity.”
Today the remnants of the local tribes gather here on Columbus Day weekend, which they have renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Days, to celebrate their heritage. Each year for the past nine years, members of the Tsi-Akim Maidu Tribe invite people to come together to heal the wounds of the past and celebrate indigenous culture.
This year, the grinding rock dedication was followed the next morning by a sunrise ceremony on the banks of the South Yuba River. Spirit Runners carried a speared salmon upstream to where a tribal elder performed the traditional renewal ceremony, followed by a feast of wild salmon.
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Sunday was a day of dancing, drumming, food and healing at the Maidu Active Cultural Center. Members of the public were invited into a traditional bark house, located where a Maidu village once stood. The Feather River Singers performed and Paiute Dancers offered songs of the Ghost Dance.
Activities Oct. 12, the last day of the celebration, were centered at Miners Foundry, a cultural center located in a building that once made metal fittings for the underground gold mines in the area.
The morning focused on children’s activities such as storytelling, traditional singing, and drumming.
Afternoon sessions included panel discussions of such topics as “Mercury in Our Water, Our Land and Our Bodies,” “Healing Soul Wounds” of the Gold Rush and “Saving Culture and Language.” Drumming and songs by the Feather River Singers interspersed each panel.
Indigenous Peoples’ Days concluded with a dinner of wild elk, wild salmon and buffalo stew at the Foundry. The feast, the Richard Prout Memorial Dinner, is named for the late chair of the Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe.