Growing up, Nisenan’s spokesperson Shelly Covert’s birthday on October 10 often fell on the second Monday in October, the same day the federal government christened Columbus Day.
“My classmates were like, ‘You are so lucky,’ Covert said.
Even with the modern name change, the spokesperson for 146 living members of the Nisenan tribe said the party never inspired feelings of good fortune.
Covert said federal recognition of Christopher Columbus – without context – legitimizes colonialism by perpetuating the idea of the white savior and manifest fate.
“The fact that it’s called in the first place is a bit absurd with the horrible things Columbus did to the American people on his way,” Covert said.
People need to look at more than one perspective of the Portuguese’s arrival in the Americas, Covert said, and talk frankly about it.
“I wouldn’t mind if people said, ‘If it weren’t for Columbus and his violence, we wouldn’t be here,’” Covert said, adding that commemorating this particular historical figure means facing uncomfortable facts and graphic images.
Covert said the colonizer’s violence is more understandable if it considers the hostility or hardships faced in their own country, but said Americans must own the whole narrative, even if it is unsavory.
“How can we be proud of this country when we have this raw heritage hanging over our heads? ” she asked.
Covert said that the Nisenan’s own allegiance to the land runs so deep that upon the introduction of the concept of land ownership, members of the tribe whose citizenship is still pending extended their loyalty to the United States in the form military conscription.
“Most of my family would absolutely say, ‘I love this country’, and we have the best of hopes for that,” Covert said.
Covert herself has dedicated her life to finding the truth – as well as the federal recognition her tribe lost 63 years ago.
The Nisenan, confined and relegated to the Nevada City Rancheria in 1938, are the living descendants of a Californian people who once occupied all of the American, Bear and Yuba rivers for more than 13,000 years. Now, they are one of three remaining tribes that have yet to reclaim land rights lost by 44 tribes across the state in the late 1950s, in the midst of the “era of termination.”
“It’s a bummer, if I think about it too much,” Covert said. “We deserve to be indeterminate like everyone else. It hurts me in a different way.
Recognition is partly symbolic, Covert said, but the tangible benefits of recognition have the potential to benefit his people in real and impactful ways.
Covert said she was elated when President Joe Biden appointed the first Native American congressman, Deb Haaland, to be his Home Secretary, but cannot express the new kind of frustration and disappointment experienced as progressive and indigenous policies are developed but remain inapplicable to his own family.
Haaland has started a truth and healing commission, Covert said, “but because we’re not federally recognized, we’re not invited.” The same goes for the tribal summits of Biden. “We are not on the magic list,” said Covert, although his family members still grapple with the childhood trauma they suffered as they were torn from their families to attend boarding schools with for declared mission to “kill the Indian, not the man.”
Covert said she had just submitted a stack of documents she estimates to be 5 inches thick to the Native American Heritage Commission. Even if recognized there, state recognition will not give the tribe access to the social and educational services they need, Covert explained, although it will add to their struggle at the federal level.
Covert said legitimizing the tribe by helping the Nisenan regain autonomy and lost lands would have unspecified benefits for all parties involved. Covert said the Nisenan tradition – rooted in mutual respect and the spirit of gratitude – has the power to influence contemporary politics, art and spirituality vis-à-vis the tribe’s relationship with nature. .
“Like the miners’ canary, the Indian marks the passage from fresh air to poisonous gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians (…) reflects the rise and fall of our democratic faith, ”said Covert, according to renowned lawyer and native lawyer Felix Cohen.
Covert’s canary sings. Nisenan’s spokesperson offers tours of ‘Uba Seo, the Rancheria’s Visibility through Art project, all day Monday.
What remains, Covert said, is that the proverbial Nevada County miners are listening to the cries of the canary.
“Everything that’s happened makes me wonder – how many times can someone slip through the cracks or be ignored after all that’s been done?” Covert said. “Yet we survive here in the homelands. “
Rebecca O’Neil is a writer for The Union. She can be reached at [email protected]