Esselen Tribe Reclaims Big Sur To Become Stewards Of Their Land. Can This Work Elsewhere?

August 4, 2020

Red Wood Trees

Indigenous communities that have lived on the land today referred to as the United States have had their land stolen from them since the first settlers arrived in 1607. Over the last few weeks, there have been more conversations around stolen land and the disproportionate trauma that Indigenous communities must face while fighting for their rights as the original citizens of the United States. As these conversations continue, they will be heard by more people, and these communities can get the support necessary to reclaim their rightful land.

The Esselen tribe is a small group of Indigenous people who have lived in the Big Sur area for over 6,000 years. In the 1700s, a Spanish missionary traveled up the Pacific coast to convert the Esselen people to Catholicism. The missionaries used this tactic to take the land for the Spanish king, Carols III, at the time. Families were split up like cattle and not allowed to speak their native languages or practice their ancient cultural practices. Thankfully, some of the Esselen people survived these injustices and found each other after the Spanish Missions dissipated following the Mexican Revolution. However, their land and home was already taken from them.

At the end of July, the Esselen tribe was able to finally reclaim Big Sur. With the Western Rivers Conservancy environmental group’s help, the tribe closed escrow on a $4.5 million deal that secured nearly 1,200 acres of Big Sur. The environmental group sought out the tribe in efforts to conserve the Giant Redwoods and other wildlife in the area. As the original inhabitants of the area, the tribe naturally makes the best stewards of the land. A grant through the California Natural Resources Agency covered the cost of the purchase. The Esselen people plan to build a sweat lodge and traditional village for other Indigenous tribes in the area to use for traditional ceremonies and to educate the public about cultural traditions and practices.

The Esselen people are not the only ones who have recently reclaimed land. In Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled that much of the State remains a reservation belonging to Indigenous people. Since the 1800s, the land that is now Oklahoma was granted to several tribes due to forced removal of their people when colonies began moving West. However, that land, too, was eventually taken from them. Cherokee Nation citizen Rebecca Nagle recently wrote in an article regarding the trial, “When our tribes were removed west of the Mississippi, to what is now Oklahoma, we were promised that this land would be ours for as long as the grass grew and the waters ran. That commitment from the United States was more than just a promise—it was the law. For more than a century, Oklahoma ignored the law and stepped on our treaty rights. Today, the Supreme Court said no more.”

This decision came about when a Seminole man was tried by the State court for unrelated crimes, and he argued that he should be tried by the Federal Court since Congress never disbanded the Creek reservation. The Supreme Court agreed that the state had no jurisdiction over the case. This set the precedent that the lands that were initially granted to the Indigenous people back in the 1800s remain theirs, meaning they have jurisdiction over the land and their people.

These legal victories are a cause for celebration for the tribes and their allies. But there is still so much work to do for us as the immigrants and descendants of settlers. Take time out of your day to research the area you live in and discover the true history before the colonies came. Support your local Indigenous communities, offer what you can. And when the time comes, vote.

Related: Why Indigenous Peoples Hold The Untapped Key To Mitigating The Climate Crisis

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Photo: Sarah Brown on Unsplash

Iga is a freelance writer based in Colorado, but originally from Poland. She follows the vegan, sustainability and zero-waste movements while trying to live a practical lifestyle! When she’s not writing she likes to practice yoga, read, play with her dogs and just be outside in nature. You can find more of her work at her website


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