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The Native American population in the Yuba-Sutter area today is most concentrated in Olivehurst (where 7.1% of residents are Native American), followed by Loma Rica (5.6%), Linda (5.4%), Sutter (5.1%), Challenge (4.1%), Dobbins (3.0%), and Brownsville (2.0%).
For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the Nisenan people, also known as the Valley Maidu or Southern Maidu, lived in the area bounded approximately by the Yuba River north fork and the Feather River south fork to the north, the Cosumnes River in the Sacramento area to the south, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to the east, and the Sacramento River to the west. This includes nearly all of Yuba and Sutter Counties; the far northeastern portion of Yuba County (including Strawberry Valley, Eagleville, and North Star) was sometimes home to the Konkow people, also known as the northeastern Maidu.
Prior to the establishment of the Maidu people, another Native American culture existed in the Yuba County region; those people were called the Martis and lived on both sides of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range between approximately Oroville and Auburn, from approximately 2000 B.C.E. to 500 C.E. It is unclear how their culture came to be replaced by the Maidu culture. The Konkow or Nisenan may or may not have been descended from the Martis.
Traditional Villages and Homes
Native Americans in California have historically always lived in small villages—perhaps about 200 people—rather than in the large tribes that were more typical in the rest of the United States. The Nisenan were never a tribe or political group, but rather a number of independent, sovereign villages (sometimes called "tribelets"), each of which spoke a different dialectical variant of what is called the Nisenan language. The name Nisenan means "one of us." Only a very few of their descendants alive today know how to speak any of the Nisenan dialects.
The Nisenan have traditionally built homes of several types. In the winter, especially in the mountains and foothills, they traditionally lived in circular semi-underground homes dug about three feet deep into hillsides, usually about 30 feet in diameter. In summer, they more often lived in fully above-ground structures, with the front door facing east so that it would be shaded from the afternoon sun. The racist yet historically valuable History of Yuba County, California (Chapter III: Indians), by Thompson & West, 1879, described Nisenan homes this way:
|The general method was to dig a hole in the ground three or four feet in depth, with a diameter of from ten to thirty feet. The ends of pliable willow poles were sunk into the ground around the excavation, and the tops were brought together, the same poles serving for walls and roof. If the poles were sufficiently long, the two ends were driven into the ground on opposite sides of the hole, the curve of the willow forming the roof. Mud or sod was then placed over the frame. The more pretentious residences had bushes interwoven between the willow poles, and an outside covering of tule grass. The smoke from the fire in the hut found an outlet through a hole in the roof; the doorway consisted of a small hole in the side, barely large enough for a person to crawl through.|
Traditional Clothing, Jewelry and Hairstyles
Traditional Nisenan clothing is simple and often scant. Women usually wear clothes made of bigleaf maple bark, a larger sheet on their backs and a smaller one in front. Men more often wear animal skins (including deer, rabbit, and mountain lion), sewn together with the fur side turned inward. Both sexes wear belts made from milkweeds. For shoes, both sexes wear moccasins, sometimes stuffed with grass for warmth and attached to a deerskin legging tied above the knee.
Both sexes wear beaded necklances, with the beads often carved from shells, and with the strings sometimes looped around their necks repeatedly. Both sexes pierce their ears and traditionally wear earrings made of bone or blue elderberry wood, but the men often enlarge the holes in their ears to a greater extent and wear longer earrings, sometimes up to a foot long. Nose piercings for some people are traditional as well. Both sexes are traditionally tattooed, but the women's tattoos are typically more extensive, including a tattoo of three vertical lines below the lower lip of a woman's mouth, resembling a stylized goatee. The men traditionally receive small tattoos that are never on their faces.
Both sexes traditionally wear their hair long. The men traditionally tie their long hair back in a ponytail, while the women traditionally trim bangs and wear their hair loose. The men traditionally pluck some of their facial hair but often leave a goatee.
The Nisenan people's religion regards the Sutter Buttes as the place where life originated and where their spirits will travel to after they die. Their religion also includes an all-male secret society and "big head" dances in which the members of this society disguise themselves to represent spirits.
Arrival of European-Americans
An epidemic of smallpox, apparently intentionally introduced by the Hudson Bay Company, killed a huge portion of the Native American population in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys in 1833. History of Yuba County, California (Chapter III: Indians), by Thompson & West, 1879, described the epidemic:
|A village is mentioned in particular, located on the east bank of the Sacramento at the mouth of Feather river, and there were numerous others on the west bank of the latter along nearly its whole length, and a considerable number on the east bank. The bodies or skeletons were found on the river banks, and under bushes in the woods, as if the sufferers were endeavoring to protect themselves from the ravages of the pestilence.|
The village described here was located in what is now Verona.
For an example of how Euro-American pioneers often treated the Nisenan people during the Gold Rush era, read about Rose Ellis. For an example of how the Nisenan people in general were seen by Euro-American pioneers, read History of Yuba County, California (Chapter III: Indians), by Thompson & West, 1879. For an example of a Cherokee man who came to California from other parts of the United States, read about John Rollin Ridge.
The Nisenan are reknowned for their basket making artistry. Their baskets are usually coiled, with diagonal or zigzag patterns on them. They make their baskets from peeled willow twigs, peeled or unpeeled redbud twigs, and deergrass.
The Feather River Singers are a local Native American women's drumming group.
Traditional Nisenan music includes flutes made from blue elderberry wood, drums made from animal skins, rattles of several types (including pebbles in tortoise shells), and musical bows (which are similar to and sometimes also used as hunting bows, but can be tapped or plucked to produce music).
Historically, the Nisenan were hunters and gatherers who did not practice agriculture, although they did tend oak trees and set intentional fires to increase the gatherable food yield of the native plants. Acorns have traditionally been their primary staple food. History of Yuba County, California (Chapter III: Indians), by Thompson & West, 1879, described the process of making acorn bread:
|The acorns of the scrub white oak growing on the hills were sweet and could be eaten in their natural state, or when roasted or dried. The substantial food was made from the long sour-oak acorns found along the banks of the streams. These were gathered in the fall and put in bins to preserve for winter use, and covered over securely to keep out the rain. These bins were made of the tough stalks of a weed growing in the river bottoms, which, when driven into the ground and interlaced with smaller branches and boughs, formed a very convenient receptacle for the winter's food. These bins were circular, with a diameter of three or four feet, and were situated just outside the villages. The Indians seemed to understand the danger incurred by storing moist acorns in their heated huts. Each family, or set of families, had its bin. In preparing the acorns for food they were hulled and ground to a fine powder in a mortar. These mortars were hollowed out of small rocks, or in the surface of rocky formations, the hole being about five or six inches deep, and at the top about one foot in diameter. The pestle was of stone, about one foot in length; when traveling they carried these implements with them.|
|The acorn in its natural state contains a large amount of tannin, which renders it unpleasant as an article of food. To get rid of this disagreeable feature, the squaws formed a hollow, with a rim, in the dry white sand, much resembling the impression produced by a milk-pan. In this receptacle they carefully poured the prepared acorn flour to the even depth of one-half or three-fourths of an inch. Tufts of grass, or small willow branches, were laid on one side of the sand pan, and water was then poured carefully upon, and allowed to spread over the flour, and soak through without disturbing the mass or mixing it with sand. The flour was kept covered with water for several hours, which seeping through separated and carried off most of the tannin, the sand becoming discolored with the fluid. Finally, in the process, the water was allowed to drain off, leaving the tough dough. By moistening the hand and pressing on the mass, it adhered to the palm and was removed from the hollow in cakes the size of the hand. If any sand adhered, it was washed or brushed off. The dough was thus by successive applications of the hand taken up and deposited in another receptacle filled with water, in which it was washed. Sand sometimes became mixed with the dough, but caused no inconvenience to the strong teeth and healthy digestive organs of the aborigines. Finally the water was poured off and the pure dough was ready for use. A hole was then dug in the ground in which the fire was built and several rocks were thrown in. This fire was kept up until the earth and rocks were thoroughly heated, then the rocks, together with the remnants of the fire, were removed and the hole brushed out. A layer of sycamore leaves was put in to form the "bread-pan," and on this was placed the dough with a hot rock in its center. More leaves were placed over it, and the fire replaced and replenished. The next day, when cooled, the baked acorn bread was taken out, ready for use.|
Traditionally, the Nisenan often hunt antelope, deer, rabbits, other mammals (except coyotes, wolves, and dogs), and birds (except buzzards) for food. History of Yuba County, California (Chapter III: Indians), by Thompson & West, 1879, described the Nisenan people's typical hunting techniques:
|In the securing of game they used the bow and arrow for the larger animals, and snares for the smaller ones. They generally crept upon the deer or elk, or lay in wait for them to pass. Sometimes they surrounded the rabbits, and driving them to the center, captured them in large numbers. Ducks were caught during dark nights in nets made of the bark of the milk-weed and wild nettle, woven together, and spread across a stream; the ducks were then slyly driven into them by the Indians on both banks of the river. Foxes, coons and badgers were among the meats of the [Nisenan]. The game was cooked generally without any dressing or cleaning, being thrown into the fire. When the outside seemed sufficiently cooked, the bird or animal was taken out and the flesh eaten from the outside until the inner part was found too rare, when the fire was again brought into requisition, until the eatable portion was at last consumed. Young birds, even crows, were taken from the nests as also the eggs. The principal game was antelope, which roamed in large bands over the plains, two hundred and three hundred being often seen in a single band. Upon these animals the early settlers also drew largely for their supply of meat.|
Additionally, the Nisenan at that time regularly speared and netted fish—especially salmon, trout, and lamprey eel. They partially dammed the Feather River so as to force all the fish to pass through the narrow opening in the dam, making it easier to spear them. The Nisenan also sometimes ate angle-worms, green vegetable worms, some insects, and insect larvae. On special occasions, they made a dessert from crushed roasted grasshoppers, which even many Euro-Americans acknowledged was delicious. They did not eat any amphibians or reptiles.
They traditionally ate some of the same plant foods that are commonly eaten here today, but also some others. Fruits from their traditional diet include serviceberries, madrone berries, manzanita berries, barberries, strawberries, toyon berries, cream bush berries, plums, cherries, gooseberries, rose hips, blue elderberries, snowberries, huckleberries, and grapes. Nuts from their traditional diet include hazelnuts, walnuts, and pine nuts. They traditionally eat the roots of onions, ginger, cluster-lilies, native tulips, camas, fritillaries, Humboldt's lilies, desertparsley, evening primroses, and cattails. They also traditionally eat the greens of red maids, monkeyflowers, sage, clovers, violets and mule ears, the flowers of Western redbud and Frémont's cottonwood, and the seeds of peas and grasses. They make tea from California lilacs, selfheal, and Douglas-firs, and maple syrup from the sap of bigleaf maples.
Offensive School Mascots
Marysville High School uses "Indians" as their mascot. Many real Indians find this offensive, for reasons explained in the Native American mascot controversy entry on Wikipedia. (See African-American Community for other offensive school mascots that have been used at schools in the Yuba-Sutter area.)