The Maidu are a people whose homelands extends roughly from the southernmost reaches of the Cascade Mountain Range to the north, the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the east, the North Fork of the Consumes River to the south, and to the Sacramento River to the west. “Maidu” is a word that means “people” in their own language. Anthropologists have divided the Maidu into three basic groups based upon language variations: Nisenan (foothill or southern Maidu), Konkow (valley or north western Maidu) and mountain or north eastern Maidu.
Although differences exist between the three Maiduan groups they have far more in common with each other than any other people in the world. Kinship, trade, and ceremonial activities have always formed strong ties among the various Maidu people. Indeed, although the Maidu currently exist within a colonizing state and are therefore unable to interact as fully as their ancestors through a vibrant language, strong bonds remain. (see Blood, Gold & Medicine, Healing Maidu Country, audio CD by Estrella Acosta 2009).
Prior to colonization the Maidu enjoyed the benefits of one of the most refined subsistence patterns ever to have existed on this planet. Commonly termed “hunters and gathers” the Maidu subsistence pattern was one of intimate knowledge and understanding of the ecosystem of which they were a part. Being almost entirely dependent upon the lands they inhabited to provide them with life resources the Maidu were aware of all options ranging from fungi to Sugar Pines, grasshoppers to grizzlies, and acorns and salmon, to name but a few. Indeed, the Maidu not only knew how to benefit from these resources but they also acted as stewards utilizing what has come to be known as traditional ecological knowledge to enhance ecosystem health and resource abundance. The use of fire, as well as pruning, digging and seed distribution were some of the techniques employed by the Maidu to maintain sustainable foods and other resource availability within their homeland since time immemorial.
Maidu culture epitomizes a place-based culture whereby language, song, dance, material production, and thought patterns are all based in the ecosystem of the homeland. The Maidu have survived the extreme challenges of recent history, from the state sponsored genocide of the 19th century through the continued erosion of land and resource rights in the 20th century, to emerge as very much a living culture perpetuating the ancestral traditions. However, one of the greatest challenges facing Maidu groups in terms of cultural survival is the inability to enact self-determination in relation to stewarding land and culturally important resources, resulting in damaged ecosystems or outright denial of access to private or even public land that was formerly part of the homeland. For example, Big Leaf Maple (Dapi, Acer macrophylum) is a material vital to the making of Maidu water-tight coiled style basketry bowls and plates. Unfortunately, in these times this material is nearly impossible to acquire in the quantity and of the quality of the past because ecosystem management decisions are beyond Maidu control.
Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles facing many Maidu groups in their efforts at self-determination is US Federal Policy. Through policy the Federal Government simply refuses to acknowledge and recognize the existence of the majority of the Maidu People. There were once thousands of Maidu living in the Yuba River watershed and there are still (at least) hundreds of their descendants living within the Maidu homeland, yet there is no Maidu group acknowledged and recognized by the Federal Government in the area. However, within the Yuba Basin there are at least three groups who are seeking Federal acknowledgement and recognition and the resulting government-to-government relationship of sovereignty and self-determination. The three groups are the Colfax-Todds Valley Miwok-Maidu Consolidated Tribe, The Nevada City Rancheria-Ustuma Tribe and the Tsi-Akim Maidu of Taylorsville Rancheria. Each of these groups is comprised in whole or in part, of members who can claim legitimate Maidu ancestry and ties to the land, and yet the Federal Government refuses to acknowledge/recognize their existences.
Despite all obstacles, Maidu sense of place and of self remains strong. Ceremonies not only continue but some, like the “Calling Back the Salmon” Ceremony are being rejuvenated. For the first time in several generations the number of Maidu Language speakers is increasing with classes available in the Yuba watershed, and world-wide social ties are being formed with other place based cultures).