A northern California Indian tribe has regained control over ancestral lands with the help of a conservation group.
One of the state’s smallest and least-known tribes, the Esselen people, lived in the Santa Lucia mountains and on the Big Sur coast for thousands of years, according to their website. Their land was taken by Spanish colonists nearly 250 years ago, and they were left without a homeland until Monday when they reclaimed the region.
The Esselen Tribe of Monterey County (ETMC) closed escrow on a $4.5 million deal with Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC), an environmental group, to buy 1,200 acres in Big Sur, their sacred land. Part of the WRC mission is to purchase land for the purpose of finding a long-term steward who will conserve its natural habitat. The organization announced in October that it helped the tribe receive a grant through the California Natural Resources Agency that covered the land’s purchase.
“It is with great honor that our tribe has been called by our Ancestors to become stewards of these sacred indigenous lands once again,” Tom Little Bear Nason, Tribal Chairman of the ETMC, said in a statement in October.
“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.”
The land, known as the Adler Ranch, had been on the market for years when WRC took notice of it in 2015, president Sue Doroff told CNN. The conservation group was interested in the land for its giant redwood forest, a tree that makes a perfect nesting place for the largest flying bird in the world, the California condor.
“The old-growth redwoods on this property are genetically adaptive to the warmer dry climate of Big Sur,” Doroff said. “These trees will be important for the future effort to assist in redwood survival.”
The Little Sur River runs along one side of the property and fans out into a tributary, a spawning ground for the the South-Central California Coast Steelhead trout. Both the California condor and the Steelhead trout are in need of conservation. The condor is designated endangered and the Steelhead is listed as threatened on the Endangered Species Act.
Both the WRC and the Esselen tribe agree that the land should not be commercially developed. “We are proud of our involvement here and conserving this landscape,” Doroff said. “We are honored to be a part of rebuilding the Esselen Tribe.”
The Esselen tribe also plans to build a village to be shared with nearby indigenous groups. They also hope to host public educational sessions to teach people about the tribe’s traditions and culture.
“We are going to conserve it and pass it on to our children and grandchildren and beyond,” Nason told The Mercury News. “Getting this land back gives privacy to do our ceremonies. It gives us space and the ability to continue our culture without further interruption.”