Tribal Lands Returned

July 29, 2020
ANCESTRAL HOME The Esselen lived in the area now known as Big Sur when the Spanish arrived.
FEIFEI CUI-PAOLUZZO/GETTY IMAGES

The Esselen Tribe is a group of indigenous people in Monterey County, California. On July 27, the Esselen regained land that belonged to their ancestors. It is the first time they have gotten back any of their former territory, which they lost some 200 years ago.

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

The tribe worked with the Western Rivers Conservancy to buy the land for about $4 million. The money came from a California state proposition passed in 2018. Citizens voted for grants to be set aside for Native American natural, cultural, and historic resources in the state.

The land is in an area of Northern California known as Big Sur. The Esselen lived there for more than 8,000 years. But the land was taken by the Spanish in the 1700s. Most of the Esselen people died. Today, the tribe has just 214 members.

Tribal leaders plan to bring back their cultural ceremonies and teach people about Esselen history. “Getting this land back gives privacy to do our ceremonies,” Nason says.

Seeing Progress

There have been other landmark wins for Native American tribes recently. In early July, a court ordered the shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline, in North Dakota. It carries oil through land that is sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux. The same month, corporate sponsors pressured the Washington Redskins football team to change its name. Many consider the name offensive.

In South Dakota, there have been protests near Mount Rushmore. The monument features the carved faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. People are calling on the U.S. government to return the area to the Great Sioux Nation.

The Esselen say they will not build businesses or permanent homes on their land. They plan to share it with other tribes from the area.

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