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Will the One True Indigenous Tribe of Nevada County Please Stand Up?

Was it history or just a savvy public relations campaign that made the Tsi-Akim Maidu the commonly acknowledged indigenous Natives in northern California’s Nevada County?

For years the Tsi-Akim have been aggressively public about their place in that community. One of their most successful efforts has been to host Indigenous Peoples Days, originally created as a counterpoint to October’s Columbus Day celebration. In 2009 a news release sent to local media called attention to a weekend of various Tsi-Akim Indigenous Peoples activities, including Native music and dance, a public salmon, elk and buffalo feast, storytelling and panel discussions, much of which was broadcast by a local FM station.

A cover story in the Sunday supplement of the local newspaper, The Union, was headlined, "We’re Still Here and Tsi-Akim Maidu Tribe Celebrates Indigenous People’s Days." In that article, Tsi-Akim Chairman Don Ryberg talked about the disastrous effects of the California gold rush on American Indians. “The ones that weren’t exterminated were run out of the county up to Plumas County.” He claimed the Tsi-Akim Maidu are the returned descendants of those peoples exiled during the frenzied hunt for gold.

The Tsi-Akim’s ongoing efforts to become recognized in the community resulted in declarations by the Nevada County board of supervisors and the Nevada County Historical Society naming the Tsi-Akim as the indigenous tribe for the area. The Tsi-Akim also garnered a host of indigenous recognitions from neighboring boards of supervisors and from the local water management facility, the Nevada Irrigation District.

The Nisenan, who also trace their lineage back to the Maidu, have been much more low-key about their place in Nevada County. Tribe Chairman Richard Johnson said he doesn’t need a PR campaign to show his people have deep roots there. “This is our country, and we have always been here, and we do not have to prove who we are. There’s some hurt in it because we thought history was well known in this community,” Johnson added. “Apparently this becoming a senior community has brought in people whose history is not from here. As a result of that they don’t know the old Indian folks, so they are seeking history but they have obtained it from the wrong individuals. That has hurt us.”

The Nevada County Historical Society now agrees with him. “The common perception that Nevada County is part of ‘Maidu’ territory is inaccurate,” it said in its recent report, in which it revoked its endorsement of the Tsi-Akim Maidu as indigenous. “Don Ryberg and his immediate family,” the report continued, “are indeed Maidu. However, they are Mountain Maidu of the Taylorsville Rancheria of Plumas County.” The report makes a clear distinction between the Maidu from a neighboring county and the Nisenan of Nevada County.

“We wrote to the board of supervisors some years ago and explained that they had recognized the wrong tribe and that tribe is from Plumas County’s Taylorsville Rancheria,” Johnson said. “We asked them to rescind their action. The response we got back was at this time they are not interested in recognizing two Tsi-Akim tribes. That just told us they did not really read the letter, nor did they even understand it.”

The result of the historical society’s reversal is that many community organizations are left with public declarations naming the Maidu as the area’s one indigenous tribe. A bark shelter at the entryway to Nevada City proclaims, “On this small piece of land will be a monument to honor the Maidu people and to encourage the healing of all peoples.”

“The deed to that small bit of land has been given to the Tsi-Akim,” Wallace Hagaman of the historical society said.

And other bits of land have been given to the Tsi-Akim over the years, adding to their presence in Nevada County. “A small piece of land in nearby Penn Valley was bequeathed to the historical society,” Hagaman said. “It was thought to be of historical value because it had grinding stones located on it. The land was turned over to the Tsi-Akim during the time when the society’s original indigenous endorsement was still in force.”

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Hagaman prompted the society’s investigation into the indigenous status of the Tsi-Akim after he became curator of their museum in 2005 and started cataloging the facility’s Native baskets. His investigation into their origins led him to the Nisenan Tribe and produced historical Nisenan photos placing them in the Nevada County Rancheria. He then went to the museum files and found numerous mentions of the Nisenan but none of the Tsi-Akim. “I felt that there was something a little bit strange about all this,” he says. “I wanted to have a recognition of the Nisenan by the museum, since we had so many of their artifacts.” He went before the society’s board and in May of 2010 a committee was appointed to study the matter. The study led to a reversal of opinion on the Tsi-Akim claim to be indigenous to Nevada County.

“The Tsi-Akim are not a tribe,” Hagaman says. “The word Tsi-Akim did not exist until 1996.”

“Wally’s right,” Ryberg says. “Tribe is a European word. It doesn’t apply to the situation.”

“In each area you had tribes who had land,” Hagaman adds. “In earlier days, if the Plumas County Maidu had come here to what is now Nevada County they could have been killed for trespassing on Nisenan land.”

The confusion over which tribe is indigenous has rippled throughout the area. The newly dedicated Deer Creek Tribute Trail was designed to honor both the Chinese who lived and worked in Nevada County during the Gold Rush and the area’s Native Americans. “At the time we wrote the grant to obtain funding for the trail we did not even know the Nisenan existed,” Joanne Hild, executive director of Sierra Streams, said. Funding for Nevada City’s Tribute Trail came from the California Resources Agency to improve river parkways. “We have two pedestrian bridges on the trail and we decided to dedicate one to the Chinese and one to the Maidu. The second bridge is not going to be dedicated to the Tsi-Akim Maidu,” she adds, “it is going to be honoring all of our Native American ancestors.”

Members of Nisenan Tribe attended the dedication ceremony for the Tribute Trail. “We are going to be including the Nisenan and Tsi-Akim Maidu in whatever ways they want to be involved. We’re thrilled the Nisenan are here, we’re thrilled the Tsi-Akim—who weren’t from here but are from the area—are participating in developing the trail’s history,” Hild said. “We want our history to be told not by us but by those whose ancestors experienced it.”

Asked about interaction between him and Tsi-Akim chairman Don Ryberg, Johnson says there is none. “When we meet each other we talk and I try to be very sociable with him. I do support his Indian group. But, he has a very large group of non-Indian people and I feel that’s extremely wrong. If he’s representing an Indian group then it should be Indians, and it should be Indians from California.”

“Our ongoing vision is to get recognized by the federal government,” Johnson says. “We wish to have a cultural center here and we would like to build one that our people would be proud of. It would be to educate all people, and to educate our own people.” The land for such a center would come from the federal government, he says. “Each Indian tribe, as it gets recognized, receives what is called revenue sharing if it doesn’t go into gaming. That’s money contributed by all the gaming tribes. Each one of the recognized non-gaming tribes receives $1.1 million a year.”

The money would be most welcome, he says. “We need to start getting our people educated, and we have a very large contingent of elders who need elder care. We need to do that.”

Loss of the historical society’s endorsement hasn’t forced the Tsi-Akim into retirement from public view, according to spokesman Michael Ben Ortiz. This fall’s Indigenous Peoples Days will be celebrated in neighboring Yuba County. Ryberg says that the former location, outside Nevada City, was just too small to accommodate the turnout. He insists that the relocation had nothing to do with the historical society’s decision to remove its endorsement of the Tsi-Akim as indigenous.