Northern California Esselen tribe regains ancestral land after 250 years
The tribe purchased the 1,200 acre ranch near Big Sur as part of a $4.5m deal and will use it for educational and cultural purposes
The Esselen Tribe of Monterey county now owns a small piece of their ancestral land along California’s north central coast. Photograph: Doug Steakley/AP
Two-hundred and fifty years after they were stripped of their ancestral homeland, the Esselen tribe of northern California is landless no more.
This week, the Esselen tribe finalized the purchase of a 1,200-acre ranch near Big Sur, along California’s north central coast, as part of a $4.5m acquisition that involved the state and an Oregon-based environmental group.
The deal will conserve old-growth redwoods and endangered wildlife such as the California condor and red-legged frog, as well as protect the Little Sur River, an important spawning stream for the imperiled steelhead trout.
Tribal leaders say they’ll use the land for educational and cultural purposes, building a sweat lodge and traditional village in view of Pico Blanco peak, the center of the tribe’s origin story.
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“We’re the original stewards of the land. Now we’re returned,” Tom Little Bear Nason, chairman of the Esselen tribe of Monterey county, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
“We are going to conserve it and pass it on to our children and grandchildren and beyond.”
Nearly 250 years ago, Spanish soldiers built a military outpost in Monterey and Franciscan padres founded missions in nearby settlements – places where tribal members were brought to be baptized and converted to Catholicism. By the early 1800s, nearly all of the remaining tribe had been decimated by disease and death. Esselen tribal members were stripped of their land, language and culture.
But this week, after 250 years, their descendants reclaimed some of their land. The tribe has no plans on leaving.
“We are back after a 250-year absence – because in 1770 our people were taken to the missions,” Nason told Monterey County Weekly. “Now we are back home. We plan on keeping this land forever.”
Since the 1950s the property, known as Rancho Aguila, had been owned by Axel Adler, a Swedish immigrant. After his death in 2004, his family put it up for sale for $15m. After years-long negotiations, the Western Rivers Conservancy, a Portland-based environmental group, etched a deal to purchase the land and hand it over to the US Forest Service.
Working on behalf of the tribe, the conservancy secured a $4.5m grant from the California Natural Resources Agency to cover the land purchase and studies of the area.
“The property is spectacular, and on top of that it repatriates land to a tribe that has had a really hard go of it over the years. To be a part of helping a tribe regain its homeland is great,” said Sue Doroff, president of the Western Rivers Conservancy.
While the property was originally expected to be broken in five lots that developers could build on, this week’s deal will allow the tribe to preserve the land as undeveloped.
Nason said the 214-member Esselen tribe will share it with other groups also native to the area, including the Ohlone, the Amah Mutsun and the Rumsen people – all of whom were devastated by the arrival of white settlers.
“Getting this land back gives privacy to do our ceremonies,” Nason said. “It gives us space and the ability to continue our culture without further interruption. This is forever, and in perpetuity, that we can hold on to our culture and our values.”
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Photo: The Esselen Tribe of Monterey county now owns a small piece of their ancestral land along California’s north central coast. Source: Doug Steakley/AP.