After 250 Years, This Western Tribe Can Once Again Call Big Sur Their Own

One of the most breathtaking vistas along the coast of California has just been returned to its original owners.

It’s been 250 years since the lands around California’s Big Sur coast belonged to the Esselen people. It was taken from them by The Spanish in 1770 before a campaign of western expansion and the finality of the Mexican War ceded California to the United States in 1848.

“The Esselen Tribe is a small group of Indigenous Hokan speaking People who have inhabited the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Big Sur coast from Carmel Mission South 40 miles to Pacific Valley for over 6,000 years,” the tribe’s website maintains.

The Big Sur, with Highway 101 in the distance.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Big Sur, with Highway 101 in the distance.

For two and a half centuries this tribe was denied the right to its former homelands. They were denied rights to the lands they revered as the place where all life began.

“These lands are home to many ancient villages of our people, and directly across the Little Sur River sits Pico Blanco or ‘Pitchi’, which is the most sacred spot on the coast for the Esselen People and the center of our origin story,” Tom Little Bear Nason, Tribal Chairman of the ETMC, said in a statement.

The Esselen Tribe made their home near the Big Sur for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Esselen Tribe made their home near the Big Sur for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived.

Now, thanks to the help of Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC), 1,200 acres of Big Sur once again belong to the Esselen.

According to CNN, the WRC operates by “[acquiring] land with the purpose of finding a long-term steward that will conserve the natural habitat.” The Big Sur lands were transferred to the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County (ETMC) in a $4.5 million deal covered by a grant through the California Natural Resources Agency.

“It is with great honor that our tribe has been called by our Ancestors to become stewards of these sacred indigenous lands once again,” Nason said.

For the first time in 250 years, the Esselen Tribe now owns the rights to the Big Sur.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
For the first time in 250 years, the Esselen Tribe now owns the rights to the Big Sur.

The Esselen Tribe now controls 1,199 acres of land on the north side of the Little Sur River, overlooking Los Padres National Forest. Between old-growth redwoods, oak woodlands and meadows, endangered steelhead make their way upstream to spawn while California condor fly above.

This is one of the most beautiful places in North America.

“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,” said Sue Doroff, president of the Western Rivers Conservancy.

After losing their land to wealthy white “Ranchos” who were given huge swathes of California to develop, the Esselen people were stripped of their identity. Many were converted to Catholicism and forced to follow the customs of white settlers. About 90% of the tribe had died out by the early 1800s from European-introduced diseases.

“The men and their families were all separated like cattle and not allowed to speak their native languages or to practice their ancient cultural practices,” the Esselen Tribe website reports.

These waters are home to endangered Steelhead salmon, which may have a chance to flourish once again.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
These waters are home to endangered Steelhead salmon, which may have a chance to flourish once again.

Though there will be no permanent housing constructed, the 214 remaining members of the Esselen Tribe intend to build a sweat lodge and traditional village on their land to conduct ceremonies share their culture with public visitors, KQED reports.

“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. This is forever, and in perpetuity, that we can hold on to our culture and our values.”

Protect the Planet

Help preserve vital habitat at The Rainforest Site for free!

Whizzco