We are ghosts in our own homelands.
Shelly Covert, Spokesperson, Nisenan Tribe
A cultural music project with members of the Nisenan Native American Tribe to preserve and support their indigenous music.
On January 13, 2016, an unsuspecting relationship began between a small Native American Tribe in the California foothills and a conductor and his women’s chorus from Sacramento. The friendship we have developed over the years is truly beautiful. Since 2016 the Nisenans have gifted us eleven tribal songs. Their songs are part of an ever-evolving larger musical composition, “We are, We have, We live,” that was commissioned to tell the story of the Nisenans’ through music and film. “We Are, We Have, We Live,” was premiered in collaboration with members of the Nisenan Native American Tribe of Nevada City Rancheria on April 14, 2018, in Grass Valley. The project and its performances provide us the rare opportunity to share and document the tribe’s rich tradition of culture and through music and film, share their history and struggle for federal recognition. We hope our art and music helps preserve and support the heritage, tradition, and spirit of a strong and beautiful group of indigenous people from the State of California.
August 29, 2015 – Indian Flat Rd Neighborhood Gathering (Shelly Sings)
September 15, 2015 – Neighborhood Gathings Posts Shellys Video
October 25, 2015- Field Research Trip with Derek Sup (composer), Joe Kye (Guest artist and looping violist)
December 10, 2016 – Daniel Watches Neighbood Gathering Video
January 2016 – Daniel emails Shelly on Facebook
January 13, 2016 – Gifting of the drum song (Nevada City)
February 20, 2016 – Premiere: Drum Song (Sacramento)
June 14, 2017 – Shelly and Daniel talk about larger gathering of songs (Nevada City)
October 15, 2017 – Gifting of 9 more tribal songs (Nevada City)
March 11, 2018 – Cultural Exchange (Grass Valley)
Fall – Spring – We are, We have, We Live – commissioned
April 14, 2018 – Premiere: We are, We have, We Live (Grass Valley)
April 15, 2018 – Permiere: We are, We have, We Live (Sacramento)
November 3, 2018 – Perofrmance: We are, We have, We Live (Grass Valley)
May 17, 2019 – Sharing of our Story and Drum Song Performance(Creative Mornings, Sacramento)
October 20, 2019 – Art Installation & Performance: We are, We have, We Live (Crocker Art Museum)
The Nisenan Indians are the indigenous people who lived at the geographic and financial heart of the 1849 Gold Rush in California. Our Tribal populations were devastated and cultural ways nearly extinguished during this time of great taking and greed. In 1851, just a few years after the onset of the Gold Rush, 18 California Indian Treaties were created but never ratified by Congress leaving the Tribal people with no land upon which to live. No compensation was ever received for the involuntary loss of homelands. The Nisenan suffered while California grew and became an official state. More than 50 years later, with the help of the local Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, especially a strong suffragette named Belle Douglas, Nevada City Rancheria gained federal recognition in 1913. We were recognized by an Executive Order made by President Woodrow Wilson when he took office and therefore restored our Tribal Sovereignty and ability to self-govern. The Federal Government took 76 acres of our ancestral Chief’s lands into “trust” and created our reservation in the foothills just outside of Nevada City, California.
The reservation served as home to many of the Tribal families until its “Illegal Termination” in 1965. The land was sold at auction and the Tribe lost all access to federal programs and services. The Tribe was part of the class action lawsuit called Tillie Hardwick in the 1970’s but never received judgment nor was it dismissed. Fast forward to 2008, through a series of random events the Tribal Council learned this fact and began its legal action to seek restoration. After nearly 8 years in federal court, the Nevada City Rancheria became the first California Rancheria to be denied restoration of Federal Recognition. The Nevada City Rancheria was also the first to have the 6-year statute of limitations used against them. Strangely, the other 41 Tribal groups who were restored were also outside the 6-year statute.
So, what’s next for the Tribe? As a terminated Rancheria our only recourse is Congress. Other Tribes have been restored through Congress but its a hard road. Our biggest hurdle is the lack of resources to support the Tribe through its journey into the political world. Conversations have begun, but we are in need of educated and experienced mentors or guides to assist. As in the past, we have had protectors such as Belle Douglas come to our aid. Maybe another will come for our last attempt; final stand; last Hurrah!! We will learn what we can and start down the path and hope those who might help will join us on our journey.
– Shelly Covert – Spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria and Executive Director of the California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project (C.H.I.R.P.)
For More Information about the Nisenan Tribe Visit: www.shellycovert.net
Tonight, we invite you to share in an amazing experience; a collaboration between two unlikely groups; a tiny Native American Tribe from the foothills of Northern California, and a woman’s choral group from Sacramento.
My mom and her sisters welcome you to enjoy
this music sung by their mom, my late grandma, Carmel Jackson Rose.
You will hear my grandma’s songs, re-sung. My grandma loved to sing and share stories about the past. Little did I know that she was singing to me in what the academics said was “an extinct language”. These songs are miracles in the fact that they survived the attempted genocide of the Nisenan people. These songs are miracles because they were part of what made Carmel who she was; a proud and loving woman of Native American Indian and Hawaiian lineage; a woman who lived a hard life and who was orphaned at 2 years old and raised on the Auburn Indian Rancheria; a loving woman who had six daughters and countless grandbabies; a walking history book with stories about the realities growing up and raising children in “Gold Country”.
The Nisenan Indians were some of the last to experience colonization when Gold was discovered in 1848. Our homelands are just above the system of missions that enslaved Tribes hundreds of years before we saw intruders into our territory.
The Gold Rush came with such swiftness, cruelty, and absoluteness
that the Nisenan people were nearly extinguished.
When California became a state in 1850 our own Governor called for the complete annihilation of the red race and paid bounties for Nisenan body parts. One hundred years after the discovery of gold, in 1948, one of my grandma, Carmel Jackson Rose’s, daughters was about to be born prematurely. The hospital in Marysville, California turned her and my grandfather way because they were “Indians”. Consequently, my Aunt Lorena was delivered by the local veterinarian. Grandpa didn’t have any money to pay him, so he traded some fence posts for the doctor’s services. The doctor said the baby wouldn’t survive. But, Nisenan woman have a habit of doing just that; surviving.
This concert and your attendance tonight is a sure sign that times are finally changing and even though Carmel isn’t with us physically anymore, her songs are bringing us into the fabric of our community.
On January 13, 2016, I ventured up to Nevada City to meet Shelly Covert, the tribal spokesperson of the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe. I was hoping to learn more about the heritage of the Sacramento Valley, the Nisenan Tribe, their culture, and the Nisenan language in preparation for an upcoming Vox Musica concert project.
I was overwhelmed with what I learned and experienced that day;
it was life-changing.
Shelly told the story of how she came to inherit the mantle of the tribe’s culture curator and sang a song she created in lament of the loss of a very old and sacred drum. Her grandfather, a tribal elder, had told her that the drum had been a messenger for the tribe for many years and that she should make sure to visit it frequently to receive its messages. When the drum disappeared from the museum where it was kept, her elders suggested that she sing to the drum to call it back home. This was the impetus for the creation of her Drum Song.
I was deeply moved by her recital
and Shelly graciously gifted us her Drum Song.
The significance of this gift was beyond words because the tribe observes a strict prohibition of public performances of tribal music; any song or dance must be “gifted” from one member to another in order to maintain its survival through generations. The gifting of this sacred and personal music to a non-tribal individual was a monumental gesture of mutual trust and deep human connection. This marked the start of the unique relationship between the Nisenan Tribe, Vox Musica, and myself.
The Nisenan are still living among us,
they are working hard at preserving their language,
and venerating and protecting their culture.
For the past several years, Vox Musica has been searching for ways to make a significant contribution to humanity, through music. So, in preparation for our 2017-18 season, the ensemble decided that I should approach the Tribe and propose a collaborative project idea that could possibly make difference in their efforts for preservation, exposure, and recognition. The Tribe agreed and then graciously entrusted in us the care of a collection of their indigenous music.
Tonight we share Part I of our collaboration: A concert project that tells the story of their lives and culture presents songs that Carmel Jackson Rose use to sing, and explains their fight for recognition through excerpts of a documentary that Vox Musica has commissioned. Next year we will present Part II of the NISENAN: A Cultural Music Project, wherein we will present commissioned settings of Carmel’s songs, release published versions of these songs in modern notation, and will share the completed documentary of our unique relationship and their struggle for federal recognition.
I was deeply moved and affected by the story of the Nisenan’s, their erasure, and their continued struggle for federal recognition. Over the past two years, I began to feel a strong inner desire to respond to their story, somehow, especially musically. We Are, We Have, We Live is my response to this desire, a platform to help their efforts, to make a difference, and to contribute to humanity in a significant way. In some ways, I feel that the Nisenan story choose me rather than the other way around, as it seems is so often the case when we feel a strong inner calling. Their story holds so many layers of meaning, is extremely culturally sensitive, and emotionally devastating.
My journey with the Tribe and their story has proven to be
an inspiring, challenging, and deeply meaningful
exploration that continues today.
As a choral musician, I am very connected to Oratorios, especially that of J.S. Bach’s, St. Matthew Passion. An Oratorio is a musical work for instruments and voices, typically a narrative on a sacred theme performed without the use of costumes, scenery, or action. In fact, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of newly composed masterworks that make use of the Oratorio framework. In 2016 Craig Hella Johnson premiered a powerful and moving setting of the life and story of Matthew Shepard, Considering Matthew Shepard, and in 2017 Ēriks Ešenvalds unveiled his fresh take on the Christian Passion and Resurrection story. Each of these depicts a story of one’s passage through enduring injustice and suffering, to renewal and resurrection.
The story of the Nisenan’s is very similar to that of these passion stories. For thousands of years, they lived from the Sierras to the Sacramento River. They were killed during the rush for gold, at the encouragement of the federal government. The children were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to boarding schools, where they were punished if they spoke their native language or attempted to hold on to their heritage. As a result, their culture was brutally and systematically eradicated.
They are slowly rebuilding, and fighting to preserve their heritage.
We Are, We Have, We Live is a musical work specifically composed for tonight’s performance; one that I hope honors and supports the indigenous music sung by the late Carmel Jackson Rose. It is the culmination of two years of relationship building, deep conversations, interviews, and meetings with the Tribal members of the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan.
The architecture is similar to that of an Oratorio or a Passion story. The libretto was formed from the stories, statements, explanations, and descriptions that I transcribed from the numerous meetings and interviews I had with the tribe.
The musical material is completely “newly-composed,” and was created to support, connect, and honor the tribal songs that Carmel Rose Jackson shared with her siblings, children, and grandchildren. We Are, We Have, We Live is a juxtaposition of solos, duets, quartets, and choruses, accompanied by instruments that are re-imagined versions of musical instruments native to the Nisenan’s.
Cultural sensitivity was at the heart of every musical decision throughout my compositional process. I continuously asked myself, how can I re-imagine, while not imitating, at the same time honoring the life and heritage of the Nisenan community?
Specific considerations were made with regards to the accompaniment, part-writing, and form of every movement in order to represent, in the best of my ability, the sanctity of their music their story, and their spirit.
The CALIFORNIA HERITAGE: INDIGENOUS RESEARCH PROJECT (CHIRP) was created to research, document, preserve, and protect California Indigenous Nisenan culture. They are actively seeking donations to fund projects and cover our general operating expenses. To donate online through PayPal, click the button below. They can also accept donations of land, automobiles, and stock. Consider a donation that funds a scholarship or internship for a Nisenan youth or a specific project such as the Nisenan Language Revitalization Project. Please consider supporting the Nisenans. To learn more about CHIRP and the Nisenan people visit: