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Esselen Nation fights for identity

Esselen Nation fights for identity

Tribe applies to bureau

Apr. 20, 2003

Rudy Rosales has fought most of his life to prove his identity.

As a 13-year-old growing up in Pacific Grove, he realized he wasn't only Latino, as his surname reflected, but American Indian as well. His schoolmates wouldn't believe him, though.

"I was telling everybody I was Spanish and Indian," Rosales recalled. "And everybody would say 'No, you're Mexican.' And I'd say 'No, I'm Indian.' And then they'd say 'No, you're Mexican.'

"So I asked my mom. My mom would tell me I was Indian. I was Esselen."

In some ways, the Esselen are the lost tribe of Monterey County. American Indians speaking Esselen and Costanoan dialects, they have called the area home for thousands of years. But the federal government does not recognize them as a tribe, apparently because of a clerical error in 1927.

Anthropologists, however, say the Esselens are indeed one tribe, though they have been known by many names: Esselen, Costanoan, Ohlone, Rumsen, Montereyeño, Carmeleño, Sureño, Guatcharron.

Today, most of the 460 members call themselves part of the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation, or Esselen Nation for short. Their domain runs from Moss Landing to Monterey and Carmel Valley, and from the Salinas Valley to Big Sur.

Rosales, 56, is chairman of the Esselen Nation, which is fighting to prove its identity, a long, bureaucratically torturous process with some potentially large payoffs.

In 1992, the Esselen Nation began its application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition, amassing hundreds of documents to prove its members' existence as a tribe.

With federal acknowledgment comes the right to receive federal aid, including health care, scholarships, loans and housing assistance. Acknowledged tribes also have the opportunity to receive land in trust from the government to develop businesses and to sign compacts with states for valuable gaming rights.

Today there are 562 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States. Rosales hopes to make it 563.

Continuous existence|

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency that oversees the acknowledgment process, requires tribes to meet seven criteria proving they have maintained a continuous existence. However, tribes whose status was terminated by Congress can't petition.

The Esselen say that's not the case with them. They say that along with 135 other California tribes, they were dropped from the federal rolls in 1927 by an Indian bureau agent charged with procuring land for homeless tribes. That act effectively canceled the government's obligations to them.

Since 1978, the BIA has come under fire from Indian organizations and congressional legislators who complain the agency takes too long to process petitions. During the Clinton administration, a new rule was added to make it easier for groups that have lost federal status to regain it.

The Esselen say restoring their federal status is not just about getting benefits. It means being able to revive a culture they have nearly lost.

"Re-recognition will give us back our dignity, our pride and our heritage," said Rosales. "We'll be able to apply for grants to help our elders, help our children go to school."

Organized nation|

The Department of the Interior has reserved 45 acres of East Garrison at Fort Ord for the Esselen to build a cultural center and museum. The Esselen will get the land, however, only if they regain federal recognition or if a recognized tribe takes it in trust for them.

Rosales says roughly two-thirds of Esselen members still live in Monterey County. The rest are spread throughout California and the Pacific Northwest. The membership is mostly working- and middle-class.

The Esselen Nation has a constitution and an eight-member tribal council. Members gather every month at the CSU-Monterey Bay campus for council meetings to plan cultural events and discuss the status of the tribe's petition. They are also collaborating with other unrecognized tribes in Northern California. The Esselen have enlisted anthropologists and a genealogist to document their history. Alan Leventhal, a professor at San Jose State University, along with Dr. Les Field of the University of New Mexico, has been working with the Esselen for more than 10 years.

A harsh critic of the BIA and media coverage of Indian issues, Leventhal believes Native Americans don't get much respect from the wider society.

"These groups were disenfranchised," said Leventhal. "They have been rendered invisible to the larger society."

Philip Laverty, an ethnohistorian and doctoral student with the University of New Mexico, has helped the Esselen amass hundreds of records to document their existence.

Tribal history|

Historically, the Esselen comprised 12 Esselen and Costanoan-speaking communities in Monterey County. Villagers lived in caves or in dwellings made of tule, a native marsh reed.

"We had a strong culture," said tribal chairman Rosales, who also serves as the nation's cultural liaison. "We respected everything as far as religion goes... Everything was sacred."

In 1883, an Indian Affairs agent named Helen Hunt Jackson formally identified the Esselen as an Indian community. The nation was later identified on official Indian census rolls, maps and in a land-rights petition sent to President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1899, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber found most Esselen had intermarried, taken Spanish names and converted to Catholicism. Even though they were still speaking the Esselen language, Kroeber declared the tribe extinct -- something he would later back away from. Yet other anthropologists in Kroeber's day continued to deny the tribe's existence.

"There really have been no significant studies," said Laverty. "It's almost as if the community historically has been ignored based on the idea that they were extinct."

In 1927, Lafayette Dorrington, superintendent of the Sacramento agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, drew up a list of California tribes to whom land rights would be given. Laverty said Dorrington mistakenly left the Esselen off the list.

"We're still living with the legacy of that," said Laverty.

Tribal genealogist and council member Lorraine Escobar is tracing the bloodlines of current members back to people living in the 12 ancestral villages. Escobar works out of her home in Morgan Hill, where she keeps stacks of documents, maps, federal and state census records, land records, birth and death certificates, church and baptismal records, anthropological and linguistic reports, and BIA documents. She enters census and genealogical information into an exhaustive computer database, where it takes only "two minutes to find 200 years of history."

Escobar has researched Esselen bloodlines for more than 10 years, spending hours at the National Archives in San Bruno, the San Jose Family History Center, UC-Berkeley's Bancroft Library and the San Francisco Archdiocese. She says she has so far identified by name more than 100 Esselen living in Monterey County in 1923 -- the last time the group was federally recognized.

"My job is to prove who we are. That we aren't just people making claims," said Escobar, a certified American Indian lineage specialist.

"You're not just the genealogist, you're the historian. You begin to understand the whole puzzle and where everybody came from."

Long wait for recognition|

After the Esselen submit their petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe should be placed on a list for active consideration for recognition. Unfortunately, that could amount to another long wait, says Laverty. Since 1978, when federal recognition criteria were established, only 15 tribes have successfully petitioned. Sixteen have been denied recognition.

So the Esselen are appealing to U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, to put pressure on the bureau. Farr says he is supportive of the Esselen's efforts and is willing to write a letter on the tribe's behalf, but he cautions that rarely does Congress pass legislation recognizing specific Indian tribes. The last resort for the Esselen would be to sue the federal government, as other tribes have.

Rosales says he wonders if he will see the Esselen's status restored in his lifetime.

"I'm very much concerned because I would like to see my grandkids profit from all this.

"Right now, we're just scattered all over the place, just like homeless Indians, what they used to call us before. That's exactly what we are. We need a place to call home."

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Re: Esselen Nation fights for identity

We have ALWAYS been tuned into our identity. It is common knowledge what happened to the esselen people. The brutal attempt at extinction still plagues most northern california natives, one way or another, like a rain cloud. BUT...Great Spirit has blessed us you see, embedded in our cell memory is the holistic,sensitive whole earth instints that will always exist.This allows us the will to survive anything. I feel that the United States goverment is trying to right the wrong that has been our past. The red tape that has tangled up this issue can be set right with more involvement from our community. Maybe a local petition would help. Any suggestions? I pray that a non evasive health clinic that educates and advocates for a well being planet breaks ground soon on the light life ..starryder


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