LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The Esselen Tribe of Big Sur, Calif., numbered perhaps only a thousand people when Spanish missionaries arrived in the 1700s. They were sent to missions to be converted, where most perished from disease. And it seemed then that their land, all of which was taken, was lost to them forever. But in a deal that's been in the works for a year, more than a thousand acres of the Esselens' ancestral territory has now been returned to the remaining members. Tom Little Bear Nason is the chairman of the Esselen Tribe, and he joins us now. Good morning.
TOM LITTLE BEAR NASON: Good morning. How are you, Lulu?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm very well. Congratulations.
NASON: Thank you. We are so honored to be recipients of this land.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your tribe was removed from this land centuries ago. What does it mean to regain ownership?
NASON: Words cannot explain what we feel from this. It's from our soul, from our heart, from our being. We are so elated and so honored to be the recipients of our ancestral home. And, you know, it couldn't be a more better spot for us to get - more sacred spot than this land.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, because the exact land is home to your 8,000-year-old origin story.
NASON: That's correct. You know, the whole origin story started right there on this land, on the sacred mountain called Pico Blanco, also known as Pitchi in our language. And it is the basis of our whole lives, the center of our universe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been fighting to get this land back for decades. Tell us how this deal came about.
NASON: Over 30 years ago, in 1991, the - Mr. Axel Adler, who was this man from Sweden who came over and had been amassing large tracts of lands on old homesteads and put this back together in one large ranch. And we - he wanted to - back in 1992, to give it back to the native Indigenous peoples of the land. So it's taken us that long to get this land.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are not recognized as a tribe by the federal government. If you had been, that would have given you certain benefits. But you've fought against that recognition, in particular around this deal. Can you explain why?
NASON: Yes. The reason why is that if you were a recognized tribe - if we were a recognized tribe by the federal government - this land would become property of the United States government via - the Department of Interior would own the land, and then they would give it back to us as a trust. But we would never have actual complete ownership. That was a big problem for us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you just didn't trust the federal government just to be a good steward?
NASON: When we were taken from our land, our language was taken from us. We were separated from our wives and our children and our grandchildren. Families were separated, put in different missions - because there were over three missions in this area. So their whole motive was to be able to separate these families, break our cultures and our traditions and basically convert us from heathen to humans - is what they said. And with that, you know, many of our people died off from disease, from smallpox. We just didn't have the immunity.
So by - within five to 10 years, pretty much most of our people were gone. Only a handful remained. So under the governor and under the state of California and acting as a nonprofit, we are able to, you know, get this land and get it back in our name. And this land is forever preserved. It's forever ours. You know, we're not developing the land in any way. We're not building a casino. We are just, like I said, not into the federal recognition because of the things that come along with it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've said that your tribe will share this land with other local tribes that were also nearly wiped out during the mission era. Why did you feel it was important to do that?
NASON: We feel it's very important to share the land with other Indigenous - our cousins, our relatives - because they, too, are landless. They, too, don't have a place to call home, a place to repatriate. One of the most important things that we are doing with this land is we're going to be able to repatriate our ancestors that are held in museums and in universities and in vaults. We're getting those out through the Native American Graves Protection Act, which requires universities and museums to give back any human remains or any funerary items back to the land. So this land gives us a place where we can put our ancestors in their final resting point where they won't be disturbed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tom Little Bear Nason, tribal chairman of the Esselen Tribe, thank you very much.
NASON: Thank you very much - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.