California Tribe Regains Ancestral Lands in Big Sur

1 min
A field of wild lupine flowers on land formerly known as Adler Ranch in Big Sur, California, which has been reclaimed by the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County. (Courtesy of Doug Steakley/Western Rivers Conservancy)

A Native American tribe has reclaimed a small part of its ancestral lands on California’s scenic Big Sur coast that were lost to Spanish colonial settlement nearly 250 years ago.

The Esselen Tribe of Monterey County closed escrow on 1,199 acres of land, an area slightly larger than San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Located roughly 20 miles south of Monterey and about 5 miles inland from the ocean, the land was part of a $4.5 million deal involving the state and the Western Rivers Conservancy, an Oregon-based environmental group, Paul Rogers of the The Mercury News reported Monday.

The transfer marks the first restoration of any lands to the tribe, whose members had lived in the area for 8,000 years but were decimated after the arrival of the Spanish. Brought to nearby missions to be converted to Catholicism, Esselen families were broken up, their land, language and culture forcibly stripped from them. By the early 1800s, about 90% of the tribe's roughly 1,000 members had died, mostly from European-introduced diseases.

“It is beyond words for us, the highest honor,” said Tom Little Bear Nason, chairman of the tribe. “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.”

Overlooking Los Padres National Forest, the land lies on the north side of the Little Sur River, where endangered steelhead spawn. It encompasses old-growth redwoods, oak woodlands and meadows.

Redwoods along the Little Sur River in Big Sur. (Courtesy of Doug Steakley/Western Rivers Conservancy)

“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.

Known as Rancho Aguila, the property was put up for sale by the family of Axel Adler, a Swedish immigrant who bought it in the 1950s and died in 2004.

The conservancy initially negotiated to purchase the property and transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service. But some area residents voiced concern, particularly after several recent devastating wildfires, about potential increased public use of the land by visitors and the agency’s ability to care for it.

The conservancy then started working with the Esselen Tribe and received a $4.5 million grant from the California Natural Resources Agency to cover the $4.35 million purchase price and pay for land studies.

A ridge top on land in Big Sur now owned (again) by the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County. (Courtesy of Kodiak Greenwood/Western Rivers Conservancy)

The money came from Proposition 68, a 2018 voter-approved parks and water bond that included $60 million for competitive grants to acquire Native American natural, cultural and historic resources in California.

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Nason said the tribe, which now has 214 members, will build a sweat lodge and traditional village to conduct ceremonies and teach the public about their culture. They will also share it with other Central Coast tribes that were similarly decimated, like the Ohlone, the Amah Mutsun and the Rumsen people. There will be no permanent homes or businesses established on the land.

“We’re the original stewards of the land. Now we’re returned.” he said. “We are going to conserve it and pass it on to our children and grandchildren and beyond.”

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

A glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, about 5 miles to the west of the land. (Courtesy of Kodiak Greenwood/Western Rivers Conservancy)