In 2010, the Esselen Nation, a small population of Native Americans from the vicinity of Big Sur in central California, petitioned the U.S. federal government for recognition as a tribe. The Bureau of Indian Affairs sent back a letter saying that the tribe doesn’t meet the formal criteria used to recognize a tribe. Officially, they don’t exist. But approximately 460 people would, and do, argue that.

The Esselens have documentation that they were recognized at one time, in documentation by Indian Affairs Agent Helen Hunt Jackson in 1883. They were listed on Indian census rolls, maps, and a denied land-rights petition to President Theodore Roosevelt. But by 1899, they had been excluded from the rolls, supposedly because they had been converted to Catholicism. They have been trying to revive their recognition every since.

Originally spread across the area just south of Big Sur, the Esselens say that they lost their lands due to their proximity to three major Spanish missions in the area. Between disease and the missions’ increasing agricultural spread and import of labor from rival tribes up the coast, those Esselens who did not join the Spanish and convert retreated further inland, into the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Before now, the only tribal land earmarked for the Esselens is 45 acres in Fort Ord, California which has been set aside by the Department of the Interior for a cultural center and museum, but they can’t access the site until they’ve been given federal recognition. But at last, they’ve taken steps to move forward with or without government acknowledgment.

The last week of July, 2020, the Esselen tribe completed the purchase of a 1,200-acre ranch near Big Sur in a $4.5 million acquisition. The land features old-growth redwood groves, and will be conserved, protecting several endangered species and many miles of the Little Sur River. Tribal leaders plan to use the land to build a sweat lodge and a traditional village. The village will be in full view of Pico Blanco Peak, which is the cite of the tribe’s own story of creation.

Source: The Guardian