As a local archaeologist and historian I was thrilled to pick up a copy of Dr. Thorne’s new book, Nevada City Nisenan. I was not disappointed. Dr. Thorne brilliantly weaves together a wide variety of archival data, historical records, maps, photographs and illustrations. The result is a lively, visually captivating, and authoritative synopsis of the Nisenan experience.
The story begins with an ethnographic overview of what traditional Nisenan life was like prior to the gold rush, which Thorne compiles from interviews with Nisenan informants and memoirs. The reader is introduced here to the geography, organization, customs, and diet of the dense population of people who called the Yuba and American River watersheds home. The wave of immigration to their homeland following the discovery of gold washed away traditions and forced many tough choices. It is difficult to fully grasp this tumultuous period. The examples provided illustrate the dire nature of the encounters between Nisenan and the newcomers and how the Natives endured them. The Nisenan people who lived in downtown Nevada City, the Oustomah, were pushed farther and farther out of town by incoming settlers and miners. At this point of the tale, Thorne’s research partner, Hank Meals, describes in detail the geology and evolving methods of gold mining in the Sierra Nevada in general and specifically northeast of town in the vicinity of Nevada City Nisenan’s reservation lands.
Thorne observes that the situation changed during the decades bracketing the turn of the century, largely due to the decline in gold mining, associated demographic swings, and change in public attitudes. The local Nisenan community and their white allies organized and fought for land just outside of Nevada City during this period, and President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order setting aside Wokodot for exclusive Indian use. The story concludes with federal termination of the Nisenan reservation in the late 1950s as part of a broad change in policy, and the ongoing battle for federal recognition today.
How does one distill a people and their culture into a single book? What was the Nisenan experience? Dr. Thorne does a commendable job bringing the Nevada City Nisenan into sharp focus and aptly establishes that they are still here. Bravo. The effort to compile all of the available images is praiseworthy. Thorne has simultaneously published another great piece on the Nisenan, shedding light on the work of gold rush artist Henry B. Brown and the Treaty of Camp Union in 1851. I happily recommend this easily digestible book to anybody interested in Native American culture and experiences during the colonial period and recent past, or who want to understand their Nisenan neighbors at a deeper level. After diving deep into the experience of the Nevada City Nisenan, it is alarming to learn that their descendants must continue to fight for recognition of their identity.
These publications are available for sale at Harmony Books and SPD in Nevada City. To learn more on Thorne’s offerings, go to tanisthorne.com.
Presentation & Book Signing with Historian Tanis Thorne and Author Hank Meals; 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 16; Seaman’s Lodge, 423 Nimrod St., Nevada City; Free Admission. Book Cost: $22