A bench honoring Maidu traditionalist could replace bark house in downtown Nevada City

Farrell Cunningham (Photo credit: Jane Braxton Little)
Farrell Cunningham (Photo credit: Jane Braxton Little)

This morning, I had time to speak with Don Ryberg, tribal council chairman of the Tsi-Akim Maidu, about the bark house that disappeared from a corner on lower Broad Street this past weekend, as Sierra Foothills Report reported earlier in the week. It had been a visible structure in the historic downtown for years.

Don confirmed the bark house had fallen into disrepair, and it also suffered from vandalism. He said he and others had picked up “small bottles of liquor, needles, cigarette butts” and the like from the site. Once a local called Don to ask if he could smoke on the site after Nevada City passed its no smoking ordinance. Don said “No.” The bark house will be repaired and relocated Sycamore Ranch park in Yuba County.

“We’re thinking about putting a bench there,” Don told me. “It would honor a tribal member who has passed (last summer) named Farrell Cunningham.”

Cunningham was a Maidu Indian traditionalist who taught Maidu languages classes in Greenville, Susanville, Nevada City and Auburn, among other places in Northern California, according to his obituary. He died of natural causes in August at his home in Susanville. He was 37.

“A poet and painter who spoke seven languages, Farrell’s thirst for his Native culture launched a life-long quest that began when he was 13,” according to the Indian Country Today. “In 2003, Farrell became a founding member and chairman of the Maidu Summit Consortium, which he described as “a northern Maidu Congress” that united a variety of tribes and organizations.”

Cunningham also was featured in this article in the Christian Science Monitor. “Farrell Cunningham, a Maidu traditionalist who grew up in Indian Valley, is dedicated to revitalizing the native language and culture, believing that this will increase confidence and self-worth among Maidu,” it read.

Don also said he planned to remove the grinding rock that had been with the bark house.

He downplayed the ongoing disagreements between the  Tsi-Akim and the Nisenan. “It’s an ongoing debate,” he said.

“Many traditionalists in our Nisenan Tribal membership have been embarrassed by the structure,” Shelly Covert, tribal secretary of the Nevada City Rancheria, had written on her Facebook page. “Also, the signage placed there caused contention as we are Nisenan people, not Maidu. This was and is a Nisenan Tribal landscape. I say these things to open conversation, not to hurt feelings, so please, keep that in mind.”

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for years, was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News, and was Editor of The Union, a 145-year-old newspaper in Grass Valley. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing and trout fishing.

3 thoughts on “A bench honoring Maidu traditionalist could replace bark house in downtown Nevada City”

  1. Farrell Cunningham apoears to have been an admirable and contributing person and perhaps worthy of a memorial such as the suggested bench. Shouldn’t that memorial be placed in his native Maidu territory? Indian Valley is roughly 120 miles from Nevada City. A suitable memorial in Nevada City should honor a local Nisenan. Chief Louis Kelly, the last Nusenan chief and a beloved local resident, comes to mind.

    1. Agreed. At very least the Nisenan should be given the chance to approve/disapprove. It’s sad that there is, still, an ongoing debate going on in Don Ryberg’s imagination.

  2. Farrell was indeed a humble and admiral man. The fact the he spoke seven languages represents bridged barriers. Perhaps the bench could simply be dedicated to the indigenous peoples of our region. In this manner, the bench itself might represent a bridge between the Maidu, Nisenan, Miwok and others who came before us. I wholeheartedly agree that a bench erected in the name of the Maidu would be an historical mis step and a slap in the face to the Nisenan. Erecting the cedar shelter at Sycamore in the name of Tsi-Akim is even more repugnant.

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