Thursday, November 26, 2009

Let us not forget the Oustomah People

When my husband and I moved here thirteen years ago from Arcata, CA, I attempted to seek out persons of Maidu descent from the indigenous community that once populated the foothills of Nevada City. I was surprised to discover that not many people even knew about them, except for some, like Bonnie McGuire, who knew Louis Kelly, the last Maidu chief from this area. My family heritage is Mountain Maidu with blood ties to the Paiute, Washoe, Modoc, Pit River and Maidu tribes. Since the 1960’s, because of participation in educational programs by elders from our region, our tribes and families are well documented by museums, colleges and historical institutions. The same is true in our former home of Humboldt County where, for decades, the local university and community have collaborated with the Klamath, Yurok and Hupa tribes, to the benefit of all.

How is it then that here in Nevada County, with several historical preservation societies and a community college situated in an area of such rich historical significance to the state of California, that our citizens know so little of the original Maidu people who confronted the vanguard of the Gold Rush, in what are now the streets of Nevada City? Chief Louis Kelly’s descendants are the heirs of this heritage.

Louis Kelly, born July 7, 1886, near what is now Cement Hill, was the grandson son of the first people to see the settler’s wagons arrive in what is now Nevada City. He was the last to remain when everyone else was gone. He was a celebrated cultural figure in Nevada City. Today his family members, and in particular the matriarch, Rose Kelly Enos, Lois’ granddaughter, are noted California tribal culture bearers and preservationists, admired by the greater Native community. But they have been forgotten and swept to the side on their own traditional homelands. This is regrettable and irresponsible because the information about the Kelly family is abundant, in our own county libraries.

There are at least nine thousand years of human prehistory here and a stunning era to follow after 1849. Yet, Sierra College does not have a qualified Native American Studies department nor is there any interpretive venue dedicated to a detailed examination of the cultural dynamics between the Oustomah people of Nevada City and the mining culture, from the beginning of the Gold Rush to the present. That said, focusing solely on the painful part of Maidu history would cause us to miss an opportunity to share the beauty of the culture and it’s astonishing evolution through time to the present day. This is a triumph of survival and adaptation. As Native people we have an inherent understanding of the need to adapt. What we resist is assimilation. Assimilation equals the loss of cultural identity.

Native peoples today strive to assert and celebrate their tribal identities as America’s first people. Currently there is a flourishing of cultural revival and repatriation programs in curatorial and educational sectors all across the nation. Indian children are being taught to embrace their heritage with pride and dignity. Many of our young people hold degrees and are now working to bring about long overdue improvements to their respective communities. But, what of the Oustomah, Nevada City’s original people?

It is only right and just that the Oustomah people, though small in number yet very much alive, receive acknowledgment from those who gained so much by their displacement. Ought not Nevada City invite the surviving Oustomah Maidu families to come forward for recognition? I am not speaking of federal recognition, which is not in a city’s power, but a simple honoring and perhaps gesture of commitment to restore to the Oustomah their historic connection to this place we all call home.

I further call upon all tribal people living in Nevada County. I respectfully suggest that we need to take a step back, remember the teachings of our elders and forebears and adhere to the traditional practices and protocols concerning the territories of other tribes. We must seek out the Oustomah people; invite them to sit down and eat, and then talk with them. We must secure their permission and blessing before we hold ceremonies on their lands. We must take care not to disturb the physical or spiritual structure of their sacred places. We must observe their unique connection to their ancestral home, as we would have them do for us in our own home places. Mostly we should not create the impression in the minds of the general community that all Maidu, or indeed, all native peoples are alike. They will understand that just as Grass Valley and Nevada City inhabitants, in spite of physical proximity, boast quite different identities, so do the indigenous peoples of California. The principles of observing territories among California Indian people have been in effect for millennia. They are critical to the maintenance of respect, the very pillar of peace.

There are several tribes active in Nevada County at this time. They are doing a good job of raising awareness about their own tribal issues. Yet the Oustomah remain marginalized and the community at large remains ignorant about these people. I have been asked many times how “healing” can take place for the Maidu people. The first step is education towards a respectful understanding of the complexities of the cultures. This has more meaning than participating in new-age style, feel-good gatherings and activities. It means more than taking a cursory glance at the culture of California’s Indian people and it means taking care not to make a mockery of their ceremonies.

I beseech this community as a whole to become educated about the Oustomah people and then give them what they have so long been denied, the respect and dignity of recognition and restored identity, the healing of reconnection to their homeland and the hand of friendship offered in the spirit of cooperation and partnership. The Nevada City chapter of the Odd Fellows Lodge did as much over a century and a half ago when they dedicated their Broad Street meeting hall. By setting the word “Oustomah” in bronze letters in the sidewalk, they literally cemented the connection of this land and its original people for history. It is now the twenty-first century, and for any of us today, Native or non-Native, to allow this sacred bond to fade into obscurity, would be to complete a cycle of what began in 1849, and wipe them out for good.