Bringing history to life

Tribal chief writes about the Nisenan’s past

We who sit here before our ancestors

Pray that we will conduct ourselves

In a manner that will make you proud

That we are your children

— Nisenan Tribal Council prayer that begins every meeting


Karen Newell Young

Nevada City Advocate


Richard Johnson was born on a reservation in 1949. Soon, government officials came and took the children away to place in foster care. Johnson and his brother, Bob, were adopted by Nana Orzalli in the Hills Flat area of Grass Valley. 


During most of his childhood, Johnson knew nothing about being Indian. 

“That’s why I knew nothing about my culture, because I was raised by Italians,” he said. He did not know any Native Americans. “I knew I was an Indian but wasn’t active with them.”


That changed when he became an adult. In about 2008, Johnson became tribal chief of the Nisenan Rancheria of Nevada City. 


“At that time I had very little knowledge of our culture, our customs, our heritage,” he said. “I needed to start studying. I needed to jump in with both feet. As a result, I learned a great deal of information about the Nisenan’s past.”

Johnson has written a comprehensive history of the Nisenan people: “History of Us: Nisenan Tribe of the Nevada City Rancheria.” It has become something of a local sensation. It sold out during a recent KVMR fundraising event and is in its third printing by Comstock Bonanza Press after its release last summer.


Johnson wrote the book so people will understand who the native people of our area are. “Our family goes back many, many generations. There already was a tremendous amount of history before the Gold Rush. One of the local digs in the area date our people back 9,000 years ago. We have a rich history here and that’s what I put in the book.”


Johnson said there is much confusion and misinformation about the Nisenan. He wants to clear that up.


“The book is the only complete story about our people,” he said. “All the anthropologists and historians studied only part of our history, in bits and pieces.”


Assistance with the book came from many sources: David Comstock, local historian and author, shared his vast collection of newspaper articles of Nevada County Indians as well as editing the book; Shelly Covert, tribal spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria and executive director of California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project; Wally Hagaman, curator of the Nevada City Firehouse Museum; and many tribal elders.


“The other thing I wanted the book to do is educate our children and our grandchildren. The information out there is distorted because people have no real place to get solid information on our past.”


“History of Us” describes everyday life among the Nisenan tribe: what they ate, what they wore, how they handled death, how they handled crime and punishment, legends handed down for generations. He included stories by Nisenan that were recorded by other tribal members.


“This book is only about us: how we treated our dead, how we treated our twins, our taboos, our murders, our adultery,”


It also describes the intertribal conflicts, especially with the Maidu, who have promoted themselves as the indigenous people of the area and determined that they were entitled to grants and various alliances with non-profit groups. 

“We’ve stated that they are not the indigenous people to these lands. That’s the conflict,” Johnson said.


But he doesn’t focus on the conflicts or competition with the Maidu. Instead, he and the Rancheria aim to promote the Nisenan tribe and advocate for its recognition and emphasize their message that Nisenan “were here before anyone else.”


In part two of the book, Johnson details the Rancheria lawsuits against the United States, claiming the U.S. violated the Rancheria Act in terminating several of these communities. Several legal actions followed, but none were successful. 


The book concludes with: “This battle is not over.”


About the photo: Both pages: 


Richard Johnson is the author of “History of Us: Nisenan Tribe of the Nevada City Rancheria.”


Photo by Karen Newell Young

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