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Woman thought to be oldest California Indian dies

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Northern California Indians mourned the passing of Grandma Bertha Norton, thought to be the oldest American Indian in the state.

She died peacefully in her sleep at her Sacramento home in the early hours of Oct. 25, severing the last living link to several famous figures in California history.

Throughout her long life Norton remained active in the Indian community and was known for her charitable good deeds. California Gov. Gray Davis has called her a "national treasure" and she received numerous community-service awards.

Norton was believed to be 101 years old but recently her great-grandson found an 1898, handwritten document in a Massachusetts museum which indicated she was perhaps 102 or 103.

She was born in Wheatland to George Nye, a Maidu, and Nancy Purdue, a Wintu from Colusa. Nye was responsible for keeping several important Maidu traditions alive in the face of western assimilation.

Norton was known for repeating her father's advice about the attempted assimilation of Indian people. She said he had accepted western culture but said it should never erase Indian traditions and Indian people should never forget where they come from.

While traveling with her father as a little girl Norton became acquainted with tribal survivor and now mythic figure, Ishi, the last of the Yahi who gained fame when he came out of tribal existence and walked into the modern world in 1911.

Norton said Ishi would be seen at the Big Head ceremonial dances where her father performed. In Norton's version of the story, she said she was fascinated by the lonely figure she saw walking on the hillsides on their way to the ceremonial. She remembered her father telling her who Ishi was and why he was often silent.

Though she only knew Ishi in passing, Norton attended Sunday school at the home of John and Annie Bidwell, founders of the modern town of Chico. Bidwell came west to gain a Spanish land grant. He built a large mansion that has been designated a California State historic landmark. He later served in the United States congress where he met and married the daughter of another congressman, Annie Kennedy.

The Bidwells were known to allow persecuted Indians refuge on their land. Though not all modern Indians hold a positive view of the Bidwells, Norton refuted the negative charges and said the Bidwells were very welcoming to all the Indian children.

Granddaughter Cathy Bishop, who works at the California Indian Manpower Consortium in Sacramento, says Annie Bidwell favored the Indian children and allowed them free reign to play in the house.

When white children came to the house, they were not given the same rights, Bishop said. She recalls how her grandmother laughed as she told about teasing white children forbidden by Mrs. Bidwell to take part in one of Norton's fondest childhood activities - sliding down the Bidwell mansion banisters.

Bishop recalls driving through the old Maidu and Wintu country in the northern Sacramento Valley with her grandmother in an old Ford Fairlane, delivering food to tribal people that needed it.

"My grandmother was like a 411 directory," Bishop says. "We would cover a large area, not intending to, but my grandmother would always remember some other people who would probably need food and we ended up covering, literally, hundreds of miles."

Recalling her great-grandfather's advice was perhaps the most important lesson Bishop says she learned from her grandmother - how it was possible to honor both Indian and white religious traditions.

Bishop says her grandmother was a "Pentecostal" or evangelical Christian who also managed to effortlessly blend in traditional Indian beliefs into her spirituality. Bishop said she believes this blending is an essential element of American Indian spirituality.

In her later years, Norton did little to slow down. She was a fixture at American Indian functions in the state and was known for her good humor.

Susan Jim, a Yurok and a longtime friend of the woman she called "Grandma," remembers asking if she should call relatives and let them know Norton would be late. Norton replied dryly that she was pretty sure she was old enough to stay out as late as she wanted. Norton was 100 at the time.

Jim says Norton credited her longevity to eating right and had a special fondness for nuts and fruit.

"At her funeral I only had a few pieces of fruit and was worried I couldn't feed everyone," says Jim. As I began to cut it up, it started to fill a couple of bowls and suddenly there was enough for everyone. I thought this was a fitting tribute to Grandma because she always said the love in your heart will provide for everyone."

Every year at Norton's birthday she said she would see everyone the following year. Jim says Norton did not say anything this year.

Norton outlived three of her children and is survived by six grandchildren, seven great-grand children, and two great-great-grandchildren.