Past Lives Matter

Nevada County Miner Native History150With the current feeding frenzy over the legacy of the confederate flag, it occurred to me that Nevada County has its own problem with the symbols of our history. The gold miner that proudly adorns our county seal is a testament to the brave souls who endured the long sea voyage or overland wagon train to reach the gold fields of California. I’ve used him to represent us in numerous cartoons over the years, the last time being the above illustration regarding the miners’ treatment of the Nisenan, the area’s original inhabitants.

The blowback was swift and sadly, predictable. It was pointed out that the natives weren’t treated any better or worse than the Chinese or any of the other minorities of the period, and that the miners were also victims of theft and murder by the locals.

Well, yeah, but none of those people lived here before the nineteenth century, and none of them had their entire culture systematically wiped from the face of the earth. When you look at the facts surrounding the Nisenan/Maidu history, it’s a miracle that any vestige of it survives today.

Even a quick search of the internet will educate you to the reality of the carnage and injustice heaped upon the local tribes. An early account from Thompson & West recounts an epidemic of smallpox, apparently intentionally introduced by the Hudson Bay Company in 1833:

“A village is mentioned in particular, located on the bank of the Sacramento River at the mouth of the Feather River and there were numerous others on the bank of the latter along nearly the whole length, and a considerable amount on the east bank. The bodies or skeletons were found on the riverbanks and under bushes in the woods, as if the sufferers were endeavoring to protect themselves from the ravages of the pestilence.”

And there is this passage from J.S. Holliday’s Rush To Riches:

“Destroyers of rivers, forests and wildlife, the transient miners were equally blind to the plight of the native people forced to flee their homeland as refugees or to resist as its defenders. These Californians – survivors of Spanish and Mexican domination – sought to escape the horde of new invaders by retreating farther into the hills. But as prospectors extended their relentless searching, followed by hundreds of impatient miners, confrontations were inevitable: Indians shot, miners ambushed, Indian villages raided, women raped, girls kidnapped, retaliations, more killings. As “volunteer militias,” miners on occasion organized Indian-hunting expeditions, which were financed during the late 1850’s with funds paid by the state government for “suppression of Indian hostilities.” Indiscriminate killings and bounties for scalps reflected public approval of whatever means might be used to “exterminate” California’s native people.”

The few Nisenan who survived the invasion eked out a living on the fringes of civilization until, through the efforts of Chief Charlie Cully,  they were granted a small plot of land to call their own on Cement Hill above Nevada City. Alas, even that small acknowledgement was rescinded in 1964 when it was determined that the tribe was not a viable entity.

The degradation continued during the early days of the hippie invasion when the graves of natives were defiled by those seeking nothing more than the stone and bone beads adorning the deceased. In the late 1990’s, Nevada City Councilman Steve Cottrell suggested naming the new street above American Hill in honor of Chief Kelly, to which another councilperson retorted, “I can’t believe we’re naming the street after that old squatter.”

My cartoon was not meant to suggest that we should dump the miner from the county seal, only that we acknowledge that a grave injustice was done to the original inhabitants of our county, an injustice that has yet to be rectified. There may be only a few of us who are directly related to the forty-niners, but we have inherited the land they conquered, and their legacy. Through our actions in the present, we can begin to heal the deep wounds of the past.. The Nisenan will be holding the annual celebration of their culture at Sierra College on November 7. I would encourage anyone who is interested to support their cause, which is to restore the Rancheria and the heritage that was unceremoniously stripped from them fifty years ago.



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13 Responses to Past Lives Matter

  1. Don Baumgart says:

    The fight for leftovers – A while back I wrote this piece for a national Native American publication about how a PR-savvy tribe promoted themselves into “our” tribe, even getting such recognition from the Board of Supervisors.

  2. Chris Peterson says:

    History has a way of coming back and biting you in the ass.

    Take my sister’s town of Durango, CO; the locals fought the EPA in the effort to designate the mines above the Animas River as a Superfund site, which would have brought millions to clean up the toxic mine sludge. The folks in the area claimed that the designation would kill the tourism they depend on.

    Well, now with the Animas River, which goes right through the center of town, being a stream of yellow, toxic sludge; where are the tourists? Gone, and not coming back soon. This as, not only are they blaming the EPA for the sludge; they continue to support the defunding of the agency. What brilliant logic: when you have a disaster that could have been prevented, blame those who have been trying to clean it up.

    I guess history also shows, some people never learn.

    • Greg Goodknight says:

      The EPA was warned that if they did what they wanted to do, what happened would happen.

      • Chris Peterson says:

        His prediction of events was prescient, but his blame for this fiasco are laughable, unless of course, you view the EPA’s twenty year effort to clean up the site, which was stopped by the local tourist and mining industries, as another gummit conspiracy, which some are more prone to believe than others.
        Or, could be that being a geologist makes the guy a political genius.

        • Steven Frisch says:

          “What brilliant logic: when you have a disaster that could have been prevented, blame those who have been trying to clean it up.”

          That is right Chris, the people trying to clean up abandoned mines leaching toxins into our environment are clearly the ones responsible for the problem, if one were to listen to the wing nut peanut gallery of Nevada County.

        • Greg Goodknight says:

          If the EPA performed their last ‘fix’ knowing it wouldn’t work, it might well rise to the level of conspiracy; pleading “incompetence” might be easier to prove in the court of public opinion.

  3. george rebane says:

    Nevada County and its iconic miner are not unique. Were we to start laboring over such historic injustices, the question comes to mind ‘Where and at which past epoch will we draw the line to limit such self-flagellations?’

    • Chris Peterson says:

      No history needed for self-flagellation; there’s plenty of reasons for that all around you, if you’re into that sort of thing. Question is: at what point do we assume it stopped?

      I’d say that point does not yet exist.

      • george rebane says:

        In that case, I will see you continuing to do penance in the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt. You will no doubt understand why my attendance may be a bit spotty.

        • Chris Peterson says:

          Seeing me in a chapel: a sure sign that you are dead and there really is a hell. (With all due respect to the 800+ forms of modern mythology.)

  4. Cathy says:

    Great post, Bob. Very timely and one that should continue to be brought to our attention.

  5. If they get the Rancheria back, they can get their revenge by opening a casino. That should raise the blood pressure of all of the old white guys who speak with forked tongues.

  6. My, my, the Rebaneans have been lured out of their cave. Two years ago a professor who carefully studied the notes of earlier anthropologists, was able to make the case for a tribal extent from south of Sacramento, over to Placerville, and clear up to Downieville and back to Marysville. She did so by comparing the language usages recorded by the earlier scholars. She made an excellent case for the range of the Nisenan being approximately as outlined. Multimedia presentation and lecture at the Helling Library, in three or four sessions.

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