California Heritage:
Indigenous Research Project

Judith Lowry, Founder

CALIFORNIA HERITAGE: INDIGENOUS RESEARCH PROJECT (CHIRP) was created to research, document, preserve, and protect California Indigenous culture. As an important first task, CHIRP has been following the history and stories of the Foothill Nisenan people of the Nevada City Rancheria, and has played an important roll in the re-introduction of the Nisenan people to the non-native community now residing in the Nisenan homelands of the Bear and Yuba river watersheds, especially in Nevada County where the Nisenan once had a federally recognized reservation. CHIRP lead restoration efforts at the Firehouse No.1 in Nevada City, California, where some of the last remaining Nisenan Tribal artifacts are archived and available for public viewing. CHIRP continues to support the Nisenan in their quest to re-establish themselves as the Indigenous people in the foothills where their families have resided for thousands of years.

Indians Irony and Identity: cultural appropriation beyond the hipster-headdress
by Dave Brooksher
Photos by John Hart
6 September 2014
The Union Newspaper

Stereotypes, especially those that appear in marketing materials, have a way of reducing complex cultures down to their simplest and most conveniently sellable representations.

Under different circumstances that might be difficult to explain, but local artist Judith Lowry has curated an exhibit of advertising, merchandising and other kitsch to drive the point home.

“It can hurt people,” Lowry said. “Especially at a time when Indian people didn’t have a voice.”

“But Indian people have become more articulate, vocal and educated, and now they can fend for themselves,” she said.

“I’m an Indian person, and I’m educated, and I’m having this show to give people a lighthearted look at a serious subject.”

There’s a darkness to it, but Lowry hopes that those who come to see her exhibit will be mostly entertained.

“I want them to have fun and I want it to be thought-provoking,” she said. “But we think a lot of this is hysterically funny.”

She eschews the language of guilt, however, since it can alienate people rather than promote understanding of one another.

The exhibit includes hundreds of liquor bottles, figurines, product labels and book covers that exploit inaccurate and culturally insensitive images of Native Americans. Lowry calls most of it kitsch, or knickknacks.

There’s a whole panel of romance novels with hypersexualized images of Indian people, and they’re some of Lowry’s favorites.

Judith Lowry holding a Navajo Code Talker G.I. Joe. A collection of fruit-box labels exploiting Native American imagery. Lindy Schasiepen at Indians, Irony, & Identity.
Memorabilia & merchandise retelling the story of Pocahontas inaccurately. A collection of romance novels.
Lindy Schasiepen at Indians, Irony, & Identity. An exhibit exploring stereotypes of Native Americans & California Indians

“There’s a whole genre where it’s just Indian men and white women, but the Indian men are never full-blooded,” Lowry said. “It’s like they have to have a little human blood. That’s the objectification and the sexualization of the Native American male.”

“Indian women have taken issue with this because they’re just guys, like any other guys,” she added. “We see them in their shorts in the morning.”

That particular form of distortion, however, is in no way limited to Native American men. Indians Irony and Identity also features a whole stand-alone display focusing on misrepresentations of Pocahontas.

“What we’re talking about here is the rampant mass-production of her image, and really the story is so different from the beautiful animated film,” Lowry said.

“The truth is that Pocahontas was about 10 years old when she saved John Smith,” said Lindy Schasiepen, event coordinator for the exhibit.

“This whole thing is just all wrong,” Schasiepen said. “It’s just a made up story, almost like an urban legend that got out of control. And then Disney got a hold of it.”

There are a number of movie posters from the mid-20th century. Most of them depict white actors in bad costumes.

“Not too many Indians played Indians in the old films,” Lowry said.

Each piece in the exhibit has something in common. Each one is an artifact from an era in America when it was permissible to exploit the cultures of oppressed peoples as a marketing strategy, then use that strategy to market anything and everything.

Some of the pieces in Lowry’s exhibit focus on misrepresentations and stereotypes of California Indians in particular. One of the installations features photographs of the local native population’s elders and their descendants here in this community today, like Shelly Covert, Nisenan tribal secretary.

Indians and Irony will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Sep. 13, in the Powell House at 203 Spring St., in Nevada City. After its run at the Powell House, the exhibit will move to Maidu Museum and Historic Site, 1970 Johnson Ranch Drive, in Roseville.

That will not be the first time Lowry’s work appears in a museum, however. As a painter, her work has been featured in Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, the Wheelright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York. Her painting, “Weh-Pom and the Star Sisters” was purchased by the Smithsonian in 2009.

To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email or call 530-477-4230.

Let us not forget the Nisenan people
by Judith Lowry
13 October 2012
Printed in 'Other Voices',
The Union Newspaper

WHEN I MOVED HERE IN 1996, at the request of my father Leonard Lowry, I began my search for the surviving families of the indigenous community that once populated the hills of Nevada City.

My paternal family heritage is Mountain Maidu with blood ties to the Paiute, Washo, Modoc, Pit River tribes. Since the 1960s, because of participation in educational programs by elders from our region, our tribes and families are well documented by museums, colleges and historical institutions. The same is true in Humboldt County where, for decades, the local university and community have collaborated with California's North Coast tribes to their mutual benefit.

How is it then that here in Nevada County, with a community college situated in an area of such rich historical significance to the state of California, that we know so little of the original Nisenan people who confronted the vanguard of the Gold Rush, in what are now the streets of Nevada City?

There are 9,000 years of human prehistory here and a stunning era to follow after 1849. Sierra College has the potential to become a Native-friendly campus with a qualified California Indian Studies department dedicated to a detailed examination of the continuum of cultural dynamics between the people of present-day Nevada City and the Gold Rush mining culture.

However, focusing solely on the painful part of Nisenan history would cause us to miss an opportunity to discover the beauty of the culture and its astonishing evolution through time to the present day. This is a triumph of survival and adaptation. As Native people we have an inherent understanding of the need to adapt. What we resist is assimilation. Assimilation equals the loss of cultural identity.

We must seek out the descendants of Nevada County's original inhabitants; invite them to sit down and eat, and then talk with them.

Native Americans across the Americas strive to assert and celebrate their tribal identities as their continents' First Peoples. Today there is a flourishing of cultural revival and repatriation programs in the curatorial and educational sectors. Indian children are being taught to embrace their heritage with pride and dignity. Many of our young people hold degrees and are now working to bring about long overdue improvements to their respective communities.

But what of Nevada City's original people who hailed from ancient Nisenan towns such as Oustomah, Wokodot, Kiwimdu, Wolou, K'ohkosa and countless others that once graced these lands?

It is only right and just that the Nisenan people receive acknowledgment from those who gained so much by their displacement. Perhaps Nevada City could invite the surviving families to come forward for recognition. I am not speaking of federal recognition, which is not in a city's power, but a simple honoring and perhaps gesture of commitment to restore the Nisenan to their historic connection to this place we all call home.

I further call upon all tribal people living in Nevada County. I respectfully suggest that we need to take a step back, remember the teachings of our elders and forebears and adhere to the traditional practices and protocols concerning the territories of other tribes. We must seek out the descendants of Nevada County's original inhabitants, invite them to sit down and eat, and then talk with them. We must secure their permission and blessing before we hold ceremonies on their lands. We must take care not to disturb the physical or spiritual structure of their sacred places. We must observe their unique connection to their ancestral home, as we would have them do for us in our own home places.

Mostly we should not create the impression in the minds of the general community that all Maidu, or indeed all Nisenan, are alike. They will understand that just as Grass Valley and Nevada City boast quite different identities, so do the indigenous peoples of California. The principles of observing territories among California Indian people have been in effect for millennia. They are critical to the maintenance of respect, the very pillar of peace.

I beseech this community as a whole to become educated about the Nisenan and their descendants, then give them what they have so long been denied, the respect and dignity of their restored identity, meaningful reconnection to their homelands and the hand of friendship offered in the spirit of cooperation and partnership.

I am told that the Odd Fellows Lodge on Broad Street did as much over a century and a half ago. By setting the word “Oustomah,” the Nisenan town that once stood where Nevada City is today, in bronze letters in the sidewalk, they literally cemented the connection of this land and its original people for history.

It is now the 21st century, and for us today, to allow that bond to fade into obscurity, would be to complete the cycle of what began in 1849 and wipe these people out for good.~~

Judith Lowry is a Native American artist and founder of California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project (CHIRP).

About Judith Lowry

Nevada City artist's work points to native plight
by Christopher Rosacker
Staff Writer
8 March 2013
The Union Newspaper

ATHOUGH JUDITH LOWRY'S NATIVE AMERICAN ANCESTRY leads back to Lassen County, the Nevada City resident uses her art to raise awareness of local indigenous people's efforts to preserve their culture.

“I think her art brings people into a subject that is sometimes difficult to talk about and hard to understand if you aren't in the culture,” said Shelly Covert, a member of the Nevada City Rancheria board of directors.

Lowry is much more than an artist. She has published a children's book that is growing in popularity, works with various Nevada County nonprofit charitable organizations and has been known to weigh in on political matters, sometimes in a feisty manner, she admits.

“She is really passionate,” Covert said. “Her energy is just phenomenal. Trying to keep up with her is tough.”

While Lowry said she is a enrolled as a member of the federally-recognized Pitt River tribe, she refers to herself as Northern Maidu.

“The Maidu is a big nation, like America,” Lowry said. “There are a lot of little states, cities and neighborhoods.”

Nevada City artist Judith Lowry works on “The Earth Shakers” in her Nevada City home on March 8, 2013

Her mother, June Shirley Harrison, was an Australian white woman and her father, Leonard Lowry, was an American Indian and a decorated in World War II veteran, his daughter said.

Leonard Lowry moved his children around. They were not raised in his native homelands, located around Susanville in Lassen County, according to a pamphlet produced by the Pence Art Gallery, which has displayed Judith Lowry's art. Part of her childhood entailed travels to places as diverse as Italy, France, Germany and Japan.

The first Native American activist Judith Lowry met was Richard Oakes, who led a two-year occupation of Alcatraz Island beginning in 1971 with Bay Area ingenious people and students.

Shortly after she met him, Oakes was shot and killed, Lowry said.

Cousin, Fred A. Alvarez, was reportedly murdered by James Hughes in the widely publicized 1981 “Octopus murders” of three people near Palm Springs, according to the television station KESQ, a Palm Springs CBS affiliate. Although The Desert Sun reported the charges were later dropped against Hughes, an admitted former mafia hitman, Judith Lowry still attributes her cousin's death to him.

“Because of those events, I take tribal matters very seriously,” she said.

Lowry moved to Susanville in the 1970s, where she raised her children as a single mother.

In the years that followed, Lowry honed her photography skills. In 1988, she garnered her bachelor's degree in fine art from Humbolt State and a master's in 1992 in painting and drawing for California State-Chico.

“I started in photography and fell into painting,” Lowry said, “or rather it choose me.”

In addition to recent exhibitions at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno and the traveling “Ignite: Art of Sustainability” showcase, Lowry has art permanently on display in the hallways of Smithsonian.

Lowry's art is inspired by ingenious heritage, she said.

“Her art allows people to see aspects of our culture,” Covert said.

Long after Lowry moved to Nevada City in 1996, she formed an informal nonprofit entity, California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project (CHIRP), which assisted in the restoration of Nevada City's Firehouse No. 1 Museum, which features a section dedicated to the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan.

The artist not only uses her art to champion the indigenous cause, but she is also outspoken about the Nisenan's fight for recognition.

“I can't speak for any tribal groups in the area, but the Nisenan have passed scrutiny with flying colors,” Lowry said.

“We can't say the same for any other groups in the area.”

Lowry has also been published. Her book “Home to Medicine Mountain” tells the real-life experiences of her father and uncle in a government-run boarding school in the 1930s, where they were taught to unlearn their native ways.

Lowry illustrated the book and it was written by Chiori Santiago, an author and activist who passed away from cancer in 2007.

“I didn't know it was going to become as big as it has become,” Lowry said.

The book has gained traction in elementary schools nationwide as education curricula regarding the history of indigenous people becomes more common, Lowry said.

On Nov. 7, Lowry appeared via Skype to a fourth-grade classroom at The Philadelphia School. Locally, lessons about Nevada City's Nisenan people are being taught in the town's classrooms.

“There is still time to educate people,” Lowry said. “To see these lessons being taught in schools is encouraging.”~~

Contact Christopher Rosacker at (530) 477-4236 or

Click on a thumbnail to see a larger view
of Judith Lowry's paintings...

PerformanceWelgatimLa Chupadora
Black MagicSinging For Her Supper

Nevada City artist's work to hang in Smithsonian
by Zuri Berry
Staff Writer
29 September 2009
The Union Newspaper

THE ARTWORK OF JUDITH LOWRY HAS BEEN ON THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION'S RADAR for more than five years. The Nevada City resident's acrylic paintings were shown by the prestigious educational center during “Continuum 12,” an exhibit in New York sponsored from 2003 to 2005 by the institution's National Museum of the American Indian. Now, Lowry will have a permanent spot in the hallways of the institution. The Smithsonian has purchased her six-panel work, “Weh-Pom and the Star Sisters,” one of the pieces featured in “Continuum 12.”

“To have your work installed in any museum is always an honor,” said Lowry.

Judith Lowry — with her painting “The Race for Fire,” in her studio on Searls Avenue in Nevada City.

“Weh-Pom and the Star Sisters” — or “the girls,” as she calls the series — is one of Lowry's favorite works, she said.

Its six panels depict five women and a wolf man in the stars, dancing and pouring star dust downward. The vivid colors and symbolism in the paintings are hallmarks of Lowry's work. She's best known for portraying the contemporary perspective of Native American life and her execution in acrylic on life-sized canvasses. “The girls” are 48 by 60 inches each, according to the National Museum of the American Indian. Lowry's work also is featured at Lilly Vigil Gallery, 214 Broad Street, in Nevada City. Smithsonian workers were at Vigil Gallery on Monday to crate up “the girls” for shipment.

Born in Washington, D.C., Lowry's heritage includes Mountain Maidu, Hamawi Band Pit River and Washo tribes and Scots-Irish on her father's side and Euro-Australian roots on her mother's side. Her father, retired Lt. Col. Leonard Lowry, was a decorated World War II veteran. Stories passed on by her grandmother, of the Hamawi people of northeastern California, inspire her work. Lowry looks back at her history, her mother and father, and wonders what they would think of her accomplishments after achieving such an honor.

“They're both gone, and I was just thinking how they would both be so proud,” Lowry said.

She also sold another of her paintings, “The Race for Fire,” to the Roseville Maidu Interpretive Center. It depicts a tiger, a deer and a bear in the foreground racing in the direction of a fire in the background. “It fits perfectly for the mezzanine,” Lowry said.~~

To view examples of Lowry's work, visit or

To contact Staff Writer and Online Community Manager Zuri Berry, e-mail or call (530) 477-4244.

Roadkill Warrior: Last of his Tribe
by Judith Lowry
Acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60"

Why we should pay tribute to Ishi
By Judith Lowry
14 January 2009
Printed in 'Other Voices',
The Union Newspaper

WHEN DISCUSSING THE PROPOSED NEVADA CITY MONUMENT TO THE MAIDU PEOPLE with an artist who had wanted to create the sculpture, the artist said, “But they want an Indian to do it.”

I asked her opinion about having the monument created, instead, as a tribute to Ishi. She didn't know who he was, so let me tell you.

Ishi was of the Yahi-Yani tribe. While he probably had multiple tribal heritages, his family group identified as Yahi - meaning that they spoke that dialect and adhered to the customs and practices of that tribe.

At about the age of 6, his family decided to “drop out,” so to speak, and melt into the forest. They had witnessed many bad things happen to Indians. In fear of their lives they became reclusive, only occasionally visiting friends' villages for gatherings.

In time, the group dwindled down to five. By the time he was in his early 30s, Ishi knew no other company than his father, mother and two other family members - a young man and woman, probably his brother and sister. The family's livelihood in the forest depended on their tools, clothing and food stores.

Unfortunately, one day a team of surveyors working in the mountains surprised the family who heard their approach just in time to flee their camp, but not in time to take anything with them. They were only able to hide and observe helplessly as their belongings were gathered and taken away.

From that time on, their lives were thrown in chaos. They fled deeper into the wilderness, fearing their camp's discovery would lead to a search. With nothing to hunt with they began to starve. One by one, Ishi's family died around him. And then he was alone.

Ishi lived for two years in absolute isolation, living off the land as best he could. To survive, he even made daring raids on white settlements' food supplies when hunger drove him to it. He shed weight until he was almost skeletal.

He began to suffer the emotional effects of isolation, loneliness and grief. He was dying.

In a traditional expression of mourning, he shaved his head and went naked to the place of the “Saltu,” his word for white people.

Ishi was discovered in a slaughterhouse in 1911, near Oroville, and taken to the county jail where he was photographed wearing an old coat someone provided.

In it he stands with a haunted expression and the bones protruding from his emaciated flesh. Several Indians futilely attempted communication with what the newspapers called, “The Last Wild Indian.”

Finally, a man came forward who knew a bit of Yahi. On hearing him speak, Ishi became excited and talkative. The man could only understand a little of what Ishi had to say. To this day, his name remains a mystery. “Ishi” is simply the Yahi word for “man.”

Theodore Kroeber, the Berkeley anthropologist, became interested in Ishi and took him to live at the university, where he was studied until his death from tuberculosis five years later. During his time there, he imparted much valuable knowledge about his people, but also about himself.

He was gracious and generous of spirit. He learned about the world that had been a mystery to him his whole life. He made friends, rode streetcars, went to the theater, and saw many wonders. Nothing really seemed to astonish or amaze him until he visited a San Francisco beach for the first time. It was not the sight of the ocean, but the thousands of people on the beach that caused him to gasp, “So many Saltu!”

To California Indians, Ishi is a beloved historical hero, one who we admire and relate to. He represents both the shattering and the survival of our tribal heritages. But perhaps his greatest attribute and the most instructive, was his saint-like capacity for forgiveness.

His gentle nature and his remarkable journey, ending only recently with the return of his brain from the vaults of the Smithsonian to a burial place in his beloved homeland, make him emblematic of the struggles and survival of all California Indian people.

Last, Ishi was a good-looking man who looked great in a suit. The proposed statue is somewhat deco-noveau with its swirling lines and generalized, anonymous figures. Such sculptures are proliferating in many production foundries and may look too contemporary.

A bronze statue of a real person would be more historic. But, maybe leave the shoes off, he never got used to them. ~~

Judith Lowry is of Maidu/Irish descent and is a nationally recognized artist, writer and educator involved primarily with Native California's cultural heritage. She lives in Nevada City.

Ishi Images: Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, from Calisphere, University of California.