Calif. Native American Tribe Reclaims Ancestral Land Stolen 250 Years Ago: 'The Highest Honor'

The Esselen Tribe of Northern California has reclaimed land that was taken from them 250 years ago thanks to a $4.5 million grant

Little Sur River
Photo: Doug Steakley/Western Rivers Conservancy

Nearly 250 years after Spanish soldiers displaced the Esselen Tribe from their home on the Northern California coast, the Native American group has purchased some of the land that was stolen from them so long ago, according to local reports.grant

On Monday, the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County bought 1,199 acres of land along California's Big Sur coast thanks to a $4.5 million grant that involved the state and the Oregon-based environmental group, Western Rivers Conservancy, The Mercury News reported.

This is the first time the tribe has reclaimed any of its former territory in the more than two centuries since Spanish missionaries traveled through California and destroyed the way of life of many Native American people who lived there, the newspaper said.

"It is beyond words for us, the highest honor," Tom Little Bear Nason, chairman of the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County, told Mercury News of the purchase. "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."

According to the Esselen Tribe's website, it was in the late 1700s that famed Spanish missionary Junipero Sierra formed three missions near their ancient homeland with the purpose of converting their people to Catholicism.

View of Adler Ranch, Big Sur, California
Doug Steakley/Western Rivers Conservancy

The Esselen, along with members of four other tribes, were prohibited from speaking their native language or practicing their traditions, and men from each of the groups were separated from their families. The Mission System in California often saw Native Americans fall victim to corporal punishment, such as flogging, if they disobeyed rules, according to the California Missions Foundation.

The actions of the missionaries would eventually lead to 90 percent of the nearly 1,000 Esselen people to die of disease or other causes by the early 1800s, the Mercury News said.

The land that was purchased by the tribe was previously owned by a Swedish immigrant named Axel Adler, who died in 2004, the newspaper reported. The Western Rivers Conservancy planned to buy the land and transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service, but local residents were worried about an increase in tourist traffic and whether the service would be able to maintain the land.

Western Rivers then worked with the Esselen Tribe and received the $4.5 million grant from the California Natural Resources Agency to make the purchase.

“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,” Sue Doroff, president of the Western Rivers Conservancy, told Mercury News.

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The Esselen Tribe, which has 214 members today, plans to build a sweat lodge and traditional village to educate the public about their culture.

"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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