Celebration to honor Coppa Hembo

By From page B3 | January 16, 2013

COPPA HEMBO Courtesy photo

COPPA HEMBO Courtesy photo

At this year’s Nature Fest on April 27, a group of people have plans to place a large quartz stone monument in honor of Coppa Hembo, the last Hill Nisenan (Maidu) chief on the Georgetown Divide.

Local historian Guy Nixon, Howard Hiemke, and This Old Rock, the company from where the stone is being donated, are spearheading the memorial monument ceremony.

Born near Meadow Brook at a Washoe Camp above Traverse Creek, Coppa Hembo’s father was a Hill Nisenan and his mother was a Washoe.

He grew up at the Hill Nisenan village near the authenticated quartz quarry north of Placerville.

The stone, being donated from a portion of the village Syhylim Toma, the name of Coppa Hembo’s town, measures 38-inches high, 24-26-inches wide, at the top, 36-inches at the base, 24-inches thick and weighs 2,000 pounds (1 ton). It is being donated in honor of the famous chief.

The name Coppa Hembo was given to the teenager who was attacked by a grizzly bear and left for dead as he was learning to be a hunter and leader. The day after he was attacked, he walked into his village carrying a large bear skin and given his name, which means grizzly bear killer.

Coppa Hembo led his village warriors against the Miwok tribe in the Battle of Rock Creek, and was named the chief of the Hill Nisenan villages on the Georgetown Divide following the defeat of the enemy.

After the arrival of the gold miners in 1849, Coppa Hembo served as a guide and friend to the white man. He learned to speak English and taught the miners how to find gold.

His friends are a short list of the better-known men of the day — Kit Carson, Caleb Greenwood, James Marshall, John Sutter — and many state officials.

He served as a justice of the peace and represented miners and Indians in court cases.

A man of leadership, Coppa Hembo was a diplomatic leader of his people. He persuaded the California governor not to round up his Nisenan tribes, as was done to many Northern California Indians, and taught his people how to vaccinate themselves against small pox.

As a result, only a few of Coppa Hembo’s people died during the epidemic, but 25 percent of the gold miners on the Divide succumbed to the illness.

The man known as Grizzly Bear Killer also taught his people not to drink alcoholic beverages and to live a peaceful life.

He and his people helped build two of the very first schools in El Dorado County, Bear Creek Elementary and Kelsey Grammar School — both on the Divide.

The Hill Nisenan and Washoe children were integrated into these schools from the very beginning, and Coppa Hembo would often visit as a guest speaker.

He served as chief of his tribe for more than 50 years.

Nixon credits the chief with successfully integrating the Maidu into American society.

“Rather than leading people in useless battles, he was able to work with Americans and achieve a level of assimilation for his people,” said Nixon. “He is not as well-known as other chiefs, but his gift was in leadership and diplomacy. There were no segregation problems because of him. He really should be recognized for his incredible intellect. He’s in the shadows because he was not into some martyrdom thing.”

Nixon’s book on Coppa Hembo, “A River Divided. The Story and Biography of Chief Coppa Hembo,” is available for purchase at Placerville News Company, the El Dorado County Museum, Marshal Gold Discovery State Historic Park and in bookstores.

The brief ceremony planned during the 2013 Nature Fest will be held when the stone memorial to Coppa Hembo is installed. It will be a permanent reminder of his legacy as a great leader to his people.

All those interested in getting involved in the 10th annual Nature Fest are invited to contact Susan Whittington at 530-333-8340, 530-903-6570 (cell) or e-mail [email protected]

Rebecca Murphy

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