History of the Nisenan


Who Owns Nisenan Culture

The Indigenous People
of the Sierra Nevada’s Foothills
are Nisenan

OFTEN, THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE OF NEVADA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, are labeled as “Maidu” instead of the correct title, “Nisenan”. While the label “Maidu” is still used widely in Native American academia, “Maidu” is actually a gross over simplification of a very complex division of smaller groups, Tribelets and Bands of Indians.

There is a Maidu map which is rarely used today. However, a Nisenan map more correctly describes our lands.

The Nisenan have made their homes in the foothills of Nevada County for thousands of years. They were born in pre-contact villages such as Waukaudok, Woloyu, Ustomah and Kiwimdo. They were part of a perfectly balanced ecosystem which thrived on the Yuba, Bear and American river watersheds, their tributaries and the wildlife that also made this beautiful landscape their home. Written documentation of the Tribe and its federally recognized Rancheria begins in 1852 and continues into the present.

Chief Charley Cully
Chief Charley Cully

In 1887, Tribal Chief Charley Cully obtained a land allotment upon a piece of this same ancient land. It was his hope to secure a home for the Nisenan, forever. Upon his untimely death in 1911, Chief Cully’s land allotment was converted by President Woodrow Wilson's executive order into the Nevada City Rancheria. The land on Cement Hill became Federal Trust Land and the Tribal government became a federally recognized entity and remained so for decades.

Today, descendants of these same ancient Nisenan families stride forward as a Tribal unit. Though their Rancheria was illegally terminated in 1964 and their remaining piece of Tribal land lost, the people continue to protect their heritage, culture, and future.

ON DECEMBER 2, 2010, THE NEVADA COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY board of directors unanimously rescinded their 2000 endorsement of the Plumas County Tsi Akim Maidu. Following three months of research, including testimony by noted authorities and the personal testimony of the Tsi Akim tribal chairman, it was concluded that upon closer examination, many of the claims made by the Tsi Akim are unsupported by facts.

The Historical Society acknowledged that while adopted in good faith, the endorsement was a mistake because of the unsubstantiated claims which were made at the time. The Historical Society also noted that its 2000 endorsement was used to leverage other similar endorsements throughout the County including the weighty resolution given by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors.

The Historical Society's decision was important to the Nisenan of the Nevada City Rancheria, in efforts to preserve its heritage and autonomy. Dilution, elimination and exclusion of Nisenan history by others who publicly conduct practices, teach history, customs and language which were never a part of the Nevada County Nisenan culture, does not honor those Nisenan descendants who have continued to live here on their ancient lands and are active in the community today.

The Nevada City Rancheria has received many comments and apologies about this but in no way do the members of the Nevada City Rancheria hold any bad feelings toward those who gave unknowingly; we thank you for taking the time to offer your apologies.

Much of the story of our once Federally recognized Rancheria and its Tribe of Nisenan are told in the Nevada County Historical Society’s November 4th, 2010, Report of the Committee to Investigate The Society’s 2000 Endorsement of the Tsi-Akim Maidu, which begins in part:

At a meeting on November 2, 2000, the Board of Directors of the Nevada County Historical Society (NCHS) approved a resolution written by Don Ryberg of the Tsi-Akim. ¹
In June 2010, NCHS Board member Wallace Hagaman offered a motion (in the form of a draft letter) to recognize the Nisenan Tribe of the Nevada City Rancheria as the "only indigenous tribe of Nevada County”. (See Appendix 1 of the 4 Nov. 2010 Committee Report)
The Board appointed this committee to investigate the issue of conflicting claims.
1. The Ryberg Letter and NCHS Board of Directors
A letter dated October 30, 2000 from Don Ryberg to the NCHS Board emphasized the troubled and sometimes violent history of the indigenous peoples of this area including their forced removals during the 1850s. The letter also stressed efforts by the Tsi-Akim to reclaim their culture. The NCHS readily acknowledged this painful history in their endorsement, and gave its support to the tribe’s efforts at cultural recovery. (See Appendix 2)
2. The Nevada County Board of Supervisors
On January 9, 2001, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors passed resolution 01-16 that, among other items, “formally supports and endorses the efforts of the Tsi-Akim Tribe to pursue Federal recognition…” The minutes of that meeting state that, “…the Nevada County Historical Society recommended approval. of the resolution to support the Tribe”. (See Appendices 3.1 & 3.2)
The Tsi-Akim subsequently used the Society’s endorsement to gather approximately twenty-two similar resolutions.²  (See Appendices 3.3 & 3.4)
3. The Maidu Connection
Research revealed factual inaccuracies regarding the Tsi-Akim’s claim to Nevada County as its traditional territory.
Cover Letter to Committee Report by Daniel R. Ketcham, President NCHS
The common perception that Nevada County is part of “Maidu” territory is inaccurate. The error is a common one, namely, that the term “Maidu” represents a political unit, specifically a single tribal unit. In fact, the term “Maidu” refers to a very large and diverse linguistic unit.
Don Ryberg and his immediate family, who constitute a significant number of the Tsi-Akim residents in Nevada County today, are indeed, Maidu. However, they are Mountain Maidu of the Taylorsville Rancheria of Plumas County. These Mountain Maidu are part of a linguistic group that linguists identify as the Northern Maidu and are distinct from the Nisenan of Nevada County. (See Appendices 4.1, 4.2 & 4.4)
The Northern Maidu and the Nisenan are sub-groups of a parent “Maidu” stock, which in turn is part of a larger Penutian language that included Miwoks, Wintus, Yokuts, and others. The Nisenan and Northern Maidu each had many different groups speaking many different dialects, as different as German is from Italian. Just as Germans and Italians (though tracing their roots to a common Latin base) developed different cultures and politics, so did the many different dialect groups among the Nisenan. Scholar Herber Luthin writes of the distinct languages spoken in California by indigenous peoples, “[e]ach language reflects a cultural division too.” There is no ethnographic evidence to suggest that there were any political institutions or allegiances that extended between Maiduan speakers of the many dialects. Rather current research depicts Native California as a politically decentralized place.
According to the authoritative Handbook of North American Indians, the Nisenan territory alone had more than a hundred identifiable and politically autonomous villages or rancherias. There were many different cultures, mutually-incomprehensible languages, and dozens and dozens of separate political units in the broad Maiduan territory. (See Appendix 4.3)
4. Traditional Homeland
The claim that Nevada County is a part of the traditional homeland to the Tsi-Akim is clouded. (See Appendix 4.4)
A letter from the Tsi-Akim’s attorney seeking support from a member of the Yuba Co. Board of Supervisors states that the Tsi-Akim “…now has a living cultural village site just outside Nevada City…” There is no claim that Nevada County is the tribe’s traditional land. The letter later refers to “an historical photograph of the Tsi-Akim (Ch’akom) village in Taylorsville…”. (See Appendix 3.3)
In his discussion with this committee in August 2010, Don Ryberg stated that the “Tsi-Akim” name was assumed by members of the Taylorsville Rancheria of Plumas County to avoid the use of their “white man’s name”.
Daniel Ketcham presenting the Final Report to Richard Johnson
Daniel Ketcham presenting
the Final Report
to Richard Johnson
Mr. Ryberg further stated that membership in his tribe was open to anyone in thirteen surrounding counties who were acceptable to the Tribal Council. When asked if non-Indians could join, he said, yes. He further said that if the tribe received federal recognition, the Council would then reevaluate who would remain a member and who would not.
The Tsi-Akim produced no verifiable evidence or documentation that any of its members can trace their genealogical’ roots to historic Nevada County. Without such evidence, the NCHS cannot support the contention that Nevada County is the TSi-Akim’s (or the Taylorsville Rancheria’s) traditional territory. The claim that their ancestors are buried in historic Nevada County remains unsupported.
5. Conclusion
The catalyst for the NCHS to examine its original endorsement was the assertion by another group, the Nevada City Rancheria tribe, which challenges the Tsi-Akim’s claim to being the indigenous people of historic Nevada County.
This committee interviewed representatives from both groups and we thank them for their cooperation and candor. This committee did not investigatel nor reach any conclusion, as to the merits of either group’s quest for Federal recognition.
The committee determined that upon closer examination, many of the claims in the original endorsement are unsupported by facts. It is understandable why the NCHS Board of Directors· gave its original endorsement. Recollections of those present in 2000 suggest that the Board believed Don Ryberg had a direct genealogical connection to other, well-known Indians of Nevada City, like Louis Kelly.
The Board may have been more cautious had it understood how its concurrence would be leveraged to gain endorsements in other localities.
The Board did not critically examine the resolution, but rather adopted it as a gesture of good will. In retrospect, this committee now sees that was a mistake.
Therefore, this committee recommends that the Nevada County Historical Society rescind its November 2, 2000 endorsement of the Tsi-Akim Maidu.
Committee Members:
Chair Daniel Ketcham & President NCHS
Brian Blair, Director, NCHS
Maria Brower, Director, NCHS
Desmond Gallagher, Director, NCHS
Tanis C. Thorne, Ph.D., NCHS member in good standing

  1. NCHS Board of Directors meeting 11/2/00. “New Business. Ed Tyson read a resolution (#114) that was given to him by Don Ryberg (sic), current tribal Chief of the Maidus. They requested assistance from the NCHS in gaining official recognition. Mr. Ryber (sic) felt our recognition would be a helpful first step. Motion for recognition was made by Maria Brower and seconded by June Rice. Motion was carried.”
  2. The Tsi-Akim Maidu website cited these resolutions until recently. The “Who We Are” page included the statement “The Nevada County Historical Society was first to recognize the tribe in 2000”. (See Appendix 3.4) A check of the website on October 2, 2010 found any reference to the NCHS gone, and the “Recognitions” page showed “Under Construction”.

Report of the Committee to Investigate The Society’s 2000 Endorsement of the Tsi-Akim Maidu
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