Esselen Tribe Regains Ancestral Land in Big Sur After 250 Years

An environmental conservancy group facilitated the land transfer

Lupine flowers on the former Adler Ranch site in Big Sur
Lupine flowers on a hillside in Big Sur.
Photographer Doug Steakley via Western Rivers Conservancy
By Alex Lauer / August 1, 2020 7:00 am

You may have never heard of the Esselen tribe, but the relatively small Indigenous group lived for about 8,000 years in one of our country’s most iconic outdoor destinations: Big Sur. The tribe was driven off its ancestral lands by Spanish colonizers, but this week, after 250 years, they regained a small but meaningful piece back.

“In a deal rich with historic significance, the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County closed escrow to purchase 1,199 acres in Big Sur as part of a $4.5 million acquisition involving the state and an Oregon-based environmental group,” The Mercury News reported.

The deal has been in the works since 2004 when Axel Adler, the former owner of the property, passed away. When the land went up for sale, it was purchased by Western Rivers Conservancy, whose objective was to preserve the area’s old-growth redwood trees, as well as endangered steelhead trout and California condors. After a potential deal to transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service was met with resistance, the Portland-based environmental group transferred the land to the Esselen instead. 

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

According to Nason, the tribe will not build permanent homes or businesses on the property. Instead, the plan is to erect a sweat lodge and traditional village in order to conduct ceremonies and educate visitors about their history.

“We are going to conserve it and pass it on to our children and grandchildren and beyond,” Nason said.

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