Story at a glance

  • The Esselen Tribe of northern California purchased back their ancestral lands in Monterey County.
  • The deal was forged between an environmental group representing the tribe and the U.S. government.

A Native American tribe originating from Big Sur, Calif., secured a deal that finally returned a portion of their ancestral lands to them — 250 years after it was taken.

The Esselen Tribe, whose ancestral homeland is the Santa Lucia Mountains of the region south of the Big Sur River in Monterey County, finalized Monday the purchase of a nearly 1,200-acre ranch near Big Sur, according to Mercury News.

The ranch is just south of Carmel-By-The-Sea and is a bit larger than the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The purchase was part of a $4.5 million acquisition that involved the state and an Oregon-based environmental group. 

For the Esselen Tribe, this purchase is a reacquisition of some of its former territory taken from them about 250 years ago when Spanish missionaries constructed a military outpost in the region and started mass conversions to Catholicism. About 90 percent of the Esselen people died due to exposure of disease from European settlers during the early 1800s, and they were stripped of their land in the process. 

“It is beyond words for us, the highest honor,” Tom Little Bear Nason, chairman of the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County said to reporters. “The land is the most important thing to us. It is our homeland, the creation story of our lives. We are so elated and grateful.”

Prior to being returned to the Esselen people, the land was owned by the family of Axel Adler, who had placed it on the market in 2004 for $15 million. The Western Rivers Conservancy, an environmental group based in Portland, Ore., reportedly struck a deal to buy the land and give it to the U.S. Forest Service. 

But some Big Sur residents protested this deal, expressing concern about several recent forest fires, a flux of visitors and the Forest Service’s lack of funding to take care of the property, according to Mercury News. 

The Western Rivers Conservancy then facilitated a deal between the government and the Esselen Tribe. Funds from a California Natural Resources Agency grant helped buy the land and restore it to the Esselen descendants. 

The land itself is home to a bounty of flora and fauna native to the California region, including endangered steelhead trout, oak woodlands and redwood trees. Esselen leaders plan to reestablish tribal cultural sites on the land, building a sweat lodge and traditional village in view of Pico Blanco Peak, the center of the tribe’s origin story. 

“The Little Sur River is a big deal for steelhead, and the property is a big deal for condor reintroduction and redwoods,” Sue Doroff, president of the Western Rivers Conservancy, told Mercury news reporters. “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.”

This new deal will also allow the tribe to preserve the land as undeveloped, as opposed to the original plan for the property to be broken in five lots for developers to build on. 

“We’re the original stewards of the land. Now we’re returned,” Nason said. “We are going to conserve it and pass it on to our children and grandchildren and beyond.”

There are no plans to build permanent property, like housing or businesses, on the land. 

Published on Jul 29, 2020