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Tribe Stripped of Historical Recognition in Unusual Move

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The Nisenan Tribe of the Nevada City Rancheria currently has 80 certified members and one of them, Richard Johnson, knows about the tribe’s history.

“I’m probably the last Indian that was born on our reservation,” said Johnson, chairman of the Nisenan Tribe. “My grandparents were the last two Indians who lived on the reservation.” In 1958 California terminated all Indian reservations in the state. “We were a small reservation and we were one of the first to be picked off. We were promised a lot of things if my grandparents signed some papers, so they signed but the government never followed through on their promises. That’s basically what happened to all the California tribes.”

Johnson was removed from the reservation and placed in a foster home in Oakland. “Fortunately, the family I was sent to live with recognized the importance of my homeland and brought me back to spend summers with my grandmother,” he said.

He’s back now, permanently, and working to establish his tribe’s historic claims.

In a decision that could have far-reaching effect, the Nevada County Historical Society has voided a ten-year-old declaration on which tribe is native to the area.

The Nisenan Tribe now holds the society’s endorsement, formerly held by the Tsi-Akim Maidu Tribe.

After a three-month study the society’s board of directors told Tsi-Akim Maidu Tribal Chairman Don Ryberg, “... the NCHS voted to rescind the 2000 Tsi-Akim endorsement.” Ryberg said he had not read the society’s decision and could not offer a comment on the group’s change of mind.

“Tsi-Akim is a manufactured name,” society member and museum curator Wallace Hagaman said. Ryberg told the society the Tsi-Akim name was adopted by members of the Taylorsville Rancheria in a neighboring county, to avoid the use of their “white man’s name.”

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In its final report the society wrote, “The claim that Nevada County is a part of the traditional homeland to the Tsi-Akim is clouded.” And, “Research revealed factual inaccuracies regarding the Tsi-Akim’s claim to Nevada County as its traditional territory.” The committee found that claims made by the Tsi-Akim Maidu in 2000 were “ variance with the facts,” according to Hagaman.

Hagaman was the person who first brought the matter to the society board’s attention. A committee was formed to investigate the authenticity of the Maidu claims.

“They heard testimony from both sides and from experts on local Native Americans. The society’s decision to remove its endorsement is a serious move,” he added. “You just don’t do that, you stick to your guns. But, it had to be done.”

“It means that the local community is recognizing us as the original indigenous people,” Johnson said.

Recognition as indigenous, given to the Maidu Tribe by the Nevada County Board of supervisors, still stands. “We’re not interested in recognizing another tribe,” Johnson said he was told by the supervisors.

The Maidu have been attempting for several years to get federal recognition. “Once a tribe obtains federal recognition then it can claim land and bring in business to the area,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to get federal recognition for the Nisenan Tribe, and have been trying for quite a few years, but it is a very long process.”

Standing next to displays in the society’s Nevada City museum, he talked of his tribe’s struggle to secure recognition. Behind him old photographs of his tribe filled one wall. In a locked case watertight Nisenan baskets and arrowheads from the area are displayed.

“We have no funding, we have no resources. We’re pretty well on the way but it’s going to take years and years and years.” He added that the Historical Society’s decision to switch recognition to the Nisenan Tribe will help with their efforts to get federal recognition—the next task to establishing historical claims for the tribe.