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After greater than 200 years, Esselen Tribe rightfully regains ancestral lands in California

As Nason explains, colonialism is the root issue of why the tribe had their land taken from them to begin with. As the Santa Cruz Sentinel reports, Spanish colonists forced local Indigenous peoples into Catholicism and essentially worked to destroy their culture and language. Before long, the majority of the tribe was lost to disease. Today, the tribe has just over 200 members. 

This deal was largely made possible due to a grant from the California Natural Resources agency that totaled $4.5 million in 2019. The purchase price and land studies came to $4.35 million. Interestingly, Western Rivers Conservancy, an environmental group, first intended to buy the property and transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service, but after concerns about how an uptick in visitors would affect the land, the conservancy partnered up with the Esselen Tribe, as reported by local outlet ABC 7.

As reported by The Washington Post, Nason said: “It is beyond words for us, the highest honor. The land is the most important thing to us. It is our homeland, the creation story of our lives.” He added to reporters: “We are so elated and grateful.”

According to Nason, no businesses or permanent homes will be built on the land. Instead, they plan to create a village to hold traditional ceremonies, space to educate the public about their culture and history, and a sweat lodge. Esselen Tribe intends to share the land with the Ohlone, the Amah Mutsun, and the Rumsen tribes, all of whom were originally local to the area as well.

Nason told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that reclaiming the land “gives us space and the ability to continue our culture without further interruption,” adding that this change is “forever,” so “we can hold on to our culture and our values.”

Back in November of 2019, the Snoqualmie Tribe in Washington State celebrated a similarly major victory in reclaiming the 45 acres of land around the Snoqualmie Falls, an iconic waterfall. Of course with every celebration, it’s important for allies to remember that Native communities continue to face structural barriers in the United States, including when we consider the novel coronavirus pandemic and police brutality. In May, for example, one Native American health center reported receiving literal body bags instead of supplies to fight the virus. In that same timeframe in May, communities in the Navajo Nation were testing positive for COVID-19 at a rate nine times higher than the state of Arizona. Chronic underfunding to the Indian Health Service system makes battling the virus and providing care even harder. 

Want to grow as an ally? Check out our Making Progress interview with Prairie Rose Seminole, a citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes of ND and descendant of the Sahnish/Arikara, Northern Cheyenne, and Lakota Nations, who got real about what allyship for Native communities should look like.

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