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After 6,000 Years, Native American Tribe Finally Wins Big Sur Land Back

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The Esselen Tribe of Monterey County inhabited land across the Big Sur coast of California for more than 6,000 years — until several centuries ago, when Spanish colonizers seized their territory. Now, after 250 landless years, the small Native American tribe is finally getting some justice, as they have just regained ownership of their land.

The purchase was made possible by Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC), a group that works to conserve western U.S. rivers and land. The group partnered with the Esselen Tribe, and got the California Natural Resources Agency to purchase 1,199 acres of land for the tribe in a splashy $4.5 million deal, which finally closed this week.

As explained by the WRC, the land is located along Central California’s Little Sur River near Big Sur. The 1,199 acres are filled with gorgeous oak woodlands, redwood-shaded riverbanks, madrone forest, ridgetop grasslands, chaparral, and steelhead-spawning spots. The acreage also includes prime habitats for the California condor, an endangered vulture whose population has been growing in the area. 

The WRC has been working on this deal since last year, and the organization first announced it had acquired a $4.5 million grant from the California Natural Resources Agency in October 2019. As reported by The Hill, the land has actually been on the market since 2004, when it was listed by the family of Axel Adler for $15 million.

The Esselen Tribe is thrilled to finally rightfully have land again.

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It is beyond words for us, the highest honor,” the Esselen Tribe’s chairman Tom Little Bear Nason told reporters, according to The New York Times. “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.”

This sacred property gives us the chance to tell our story to demonstrate our resilience,” the tribe wrote in an Instagram post. “The opportunity to be able to recreate and rebirth, to put forth our efforts in the preservation and continuation of cultural traditions and have a place to have our cultural identity restored. The property offers the opportunity for tribal members and other Native Americans to engage in ceremonies and carry on our cultural practices.”

Who is the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County?

The Esselen Tribe of Monterey County is a historic Native American tribe made up of Indigenous Hokan speaking People. As explained on the tribe’s website, after 6,000 years of the Esselen people owning land along the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Big Sur coast, in 1602, a Spanish explorer named Sebastian Vizcaino first visited Monterey — the first step in the Spanish people’s colonization of Native American lands in the area.

About 150 years later, a Spanish missionary named Junipero Serra visited the area to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. He colonized the land and claimed dominion over the Esselen, Rumsen, and Salinan tribes. He separated families, forbade them from speaking their native languages, and seized their land to found three California Missions, which still exist today.

Since then and up until this week, the Esselen Tribe has not had claim to any land. Today, the tribe’s mission is to “preserve and to protect” their “cultural heritage and ancestral sacred sites” — and now, they will finally be able to. 

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