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Sacramento, Northern California tribes seek land back for 'cultural survival'

Emma Hall, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO — Along the gentle rolling foothills nearby Nevada City is a village known as Yulića.

Across the 232 acres of this land, there are man-made ponds, two creeks that barely trickle through and, on top of a small mountain, a medicine rock used to grind medicine by Nisenan people.

This was once Nisenan land.

Today, the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan tribe is raising money to purchase the land back.

The tribe is working with the California Heritage Indigenous Research Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that preserves Nisenan culture and supports the tribe in restoring federal recognition. The nonprofit is currently fundraising over $2 million to purchase the land.

The Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe aren’t the only Sacramento-area tribe with land back endeavors. In April, the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians successfully reclaimed their ancestral lands by purchasing 2.39 acres of land at 301 Capitol Mall in downtown Sacramento.

Dustin Murray, Shingle Springs’ tribal administrator, said the site is located near the tribe’s original village, Pusúune. While there are still no long-term plans for the property, Murray said the tribes hopes to feature the tribe’s history on the site.

“Being so close to our ancestral waterways is going to be a pretty significant site to be able to gather,” Murray said. “Having that presence as a tribal community, in an important city like Sacramento, makes a statement.”

Wilton Rancheria, located in Elk Grove, reclaimed 77 acres of ancestral land from the federal government. Jesus Tarango, Wilton’s chairman, called the purchase the tribe’s “biggest flex in sovereignty.” Tarango told The Sacramento Bee this purchase could start the healing process for the tribe.

Tribes often have difficulty getting access to ancestral spaces for cultural gathering, dancing and ceremony, Murray said. But with their village reclaimed, there are opportunities for education.

“Holding that space, in a place that were driven from at one point, it’s really impactful and powerful,” Murray said.

A possible step towards sovereignty

Owning land will support The Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe in obtaining back federal recognition, the project argues. Because the tribe is not recognized federal government, they are unable to receive federal grants, protections and lack sovereign rights.

Tribal sovereignty is crucial for Native communities. With it, tribes can establish tribal courts to protect their citizens, provide public services for their members, and preserve their cultural traditions and identity.

For the Nisenan, getting land back is a matter of cultural survival. The genocide of California Native people during the Gold Rush devastated tribal communities. With the U.S. Army and vigilante groups murdering up to 16,000 Native men, women and children, John Sutter described this time period as the “war of extermination.” Twenty years after the discovery of gold at the Sutter’s Mill, 80% of the Native population in California were killed.


Additionally, the Nisenan, like many tribes, were displaced. They lost federal recognition after the California Rancheria Termination Act, had their land stolen and were erased from Californian history, said Shelly Covert, the tribe’s spokesperson. With this purchase, it could be the first time the tribe has owned land in 45 years.

The Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan previously lived on 75 acres in Nevada City, which was sold in 1964 by the United States, according to the California Heritage Indigenous Research Project.

Wilton Rancheria went through similar hardships, losing federal recognition the same year as the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe: 1964. And while their recognition was reinstated in 2009, the tribe remained landless until their purchase this year.

For Native communities like the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan and Wilton Rancheria, losing land and federal recognition goes back to the 1950s and 1960s with the California Rancheria Termination Acts. Then, Congress eliminated the sovereign rights of Rancherias. The Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan and Wilton Rancheria were two of 41 Rancherias targeted. This act was a part of the United States’ Indian Termination Policy, which sought to assimilate Native communities and dismantled tribal sovereignty.

Since then, the Nevada City Nisenan has had no homeland. The California Heritage Indigenous Research Project reported the tribe has “suffered the impacts of historical and generational trauma, poverty and near erasure of identity and culture” as a result. The Nisenan tribe has been “invisible and not reflected in local histories,” said Covert.

“Being able to keep together (land) is paramount to cultural survival,” Covert said. “...That’s where the culture lives.”

Covert said, if the land is successfully purchased, it will allow the tribe to implement services that persevere Nisenan culture.

The tribe would like to use the land for housing for elders and tribal members, a community center for tribal meetings, and for gardens to persevere Indigenous food and traditional medicinal and plant cultivation, according to the California Heritage Indigenous Research Project.

Additionally, the tribe wants to use the land for ceremonial spaces, a wellness center, and as a tool of cultural education for tribal members and non-Natives alike.

The California Heritage Indigenous Research Project went into a purchase agreement in January 2023. So far, they have met the first phase of their fundraising goal.

Yulića is currently owned by the College Park Friends Educational Association, a nonprofit that created the John Woolman School, a educational program and summer residence in Nevada City. Previously, the site was used as a Quaker boarding school and summer camp. The land itself includes 20 different buildings, like homes, a meeting center, offices, classrooms and cabins. The school is in collaboration with the tribe in their cultural preservation efforts.

“Transitioning the land back to the tribe embodies Woolman’s values and is a spiritual endeavor to promote the right relationship between its recent stewards and the land’s original inhabitants,” the California Heritage Indigenous Research Project wrote in a statement.


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