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The Esselen tribe of Northern California regains ancestral land after 250 years

As part of a $4.5 m contract, the tribe bought the 1,200-acre ranch near Big Sur and will use it for educational and cultural purposes.

The Esselen tribe of northern California is no longer landless two hundred and fifty years after they were deprived of their ancestral territory.
This week, the Esselen tribe finalized purchasing a 1,200-acre ranch near Big Sur, along the north central coast of California, as part of a $4.5-million deal between the state and an environmental organization based in Oregon.

The deal will save old-growth redwoods and endangered species such as the California condor and red-legged frog, and preserve the Little Sur River, an important spawning stream for the imperiled steelhead trout.
Tribal leaders say they are going to use the land for educational and cultural purposes, constructing a sweat lodge and traditional village in view of the peak of Pico Blanco, the core of the origin story of the tribe.

“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.”

Spain ‘s troops established a military base nearly 250 years ago in Monterey and Franciscan parents founded missions in neighboring communities – places where tribal members were brought to be baptized and converted into Catholicism. By the early 1800s, disease and death had decimated nearly all of the remaining tribal population. Tribal leaders of Esselen had been deprived of their land, language, and culture.

Nevertheless, their descendants regained some of their land this week, after 250 years. The tribe has no plans to leave.

“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 had been owned by Axel Adler, a Swedish immigrant, known as Rancho Aguila. His father had put it up for sale for $15 m following his death in 2004. The Western Rivers Conservancy, an conservation organization based in Portland, has negotiated a deal to purchase the property and turn it over to the US Forest Service following years of talks.

The conservancy, working for the tribe, secured a $4.5 m grant from the California Natural Resources Agency to cover the area’s land purchases and studies.

“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.

Although it was originally planned that the property will be split into five lots developers might build on, the agreement this week would allow the tribe to retain the land as undeveloped.
Nason said the 214-member Esselen tribe would share it with other communities that are also native to the region, including the Ohlone, the Amah Mutsun, and the Rumsen people – all ravaged by white settlers moving in.

“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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