‘We want our homeland back’ The Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation is closer than ever to getting some land returned


By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

If you’ve ever sat around a fire, roasting marshmallows and telling stories, perhaps you can evoke a teeny bit of what Louise Miranda Ramirez wants to regain. There, under the stars that have seen the passage of centuries nearly unchanged, Ramirez and members of her tribe, the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, could weave themselves back together as a family, as a group that has survived generations of cultural, social and economic upheaval, of poverty and trauma.

Of course, members of OCEN do sit around campfires during their annual tribal gathering. But they don’t gather on their own land, an element that Ramirez believes is essential to restoring the tribe’s wholeness. 

“Having land makes it so much easier,” Ramirez, chair of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, said recently.  “Why? Because you can feel nobody is going to come and take you off it. You can talk, sing, do what you need to do, and not worry about people asking ‘Why are you doing that?’”

It’s the difference between renting vs. owning. 

And after decades of advocacy, meetings and struggles, the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation is closer than ever to getting some of its own land back. 

The land in question is an 84-acre parcel across from the Monterey Regional Airport, on the south side of Highway 68, known as the Hiss Parcel on Tarpey Flats. Funding to purchase the land was authorized in November by the California State Coastal Conservancy, and Big Sur Land Trust closed escrow on the land in April.

The land was ostensibly acquired for conservation and preservation. It was originally on the market for residential and commercial development, and a preliminary development feasibility study completed in February 2021 outlined a plan for up to 37 single family residences.

Given its location, sandwiched between the Fort Ord National Monument and the Monterey Pine Forest Preserve, it presented an opportunity to extend a wildlife corridor, not to mention the importance of its wetlands for preventing flooding downstream. The Big Sur Land Trust approached the seller, and after a few years of conversations, they agreed on a price. 

“Because of the surrounding protected areas, we thought it was a good conservation opportunity,” said Rachel Saunders, director of conservation for Big Sur Land Trust. “The owners were wonderful to work with, then we got the property appraised, then got the funding.” 

The lion’s share of the funding comes from a $2.75 million grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy. Conservation of the 84 acres means a significant portion of the larger Canyon Del Rey watershed will be preserved, with its share of “wetlands, riparian habitat, perennial and annual grasslands, coast live oak woodlands, and small patches of maritime chaparral and Monterey Pine forest,” according to the press release

As part of its resolution, the Coastal Conservancy stipulated that the property “shall be managed and operated for natural and California Native American tribal cultural resource conservation, habitat connectivity, California Native American tribal access, and public access.” 

In recent years, the state of California has made an effort to create opportunities for Native Americans to have access to their ancestral lands, Saunders said. This access is on a continuum: some want land back, some others are less interested in owning, but want access to hold ceremonies. 

Having already built a relationship with OCEN while working on the development of Ensen Community Park in Salinas, the Big Sur Land Trust approached Ramirez and OCEN to work on this project, Saunders said. 

We reached out to them to see if they’d had any interest in tribal access related to this property, so we’ve had many conversations about this property,” she said. “They were very supportive at the hearing before the Coastal Conservancy; Louise made a statement in support of the acquisition.” 

Land-back movement

The indigenous land-back movement is having its moment in California. In November, the Department of Fish and Wildlife transferred more than 40 acres of the historic Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery in Inyo County to the Fort Independence Indian Community, one of the four Owens Valley Paiute Tribes. The transfer had no money attached, and it marked the first time Fish and Wildlife returned land to an indigenous group. 

In March, Berkeley announced an agreement to return a parking lot built atop a sacred tribal ground to Ohlone people, a 2.2-acre site that was home to a village some 5,700 years ago. 

Most recently, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s support for the return of over 2,800 acres of ancestral land to the Shasta Indian Nation, one of the largest land-back moves in state history. The land will give Shasta Indians access to their ceremonial sites, including the site of their First Salmon Ceremony, which they consider critical to the spiritual and emotional health of their nation. 

“The ceremony has not taken place since the lands were taken by eminent domain for the construction of Copco dam over 100 years ago,” Shasta Indian Nation Chairperson Janice Crowe said in a press release. “This is transformative and the beginning of restorative justice for our people.” 

Newsom has been an enthusiastic supporter of the land-back movement and Native American rights, starting with a formal apology in 2019 that also established the Truth and Healing Council to explore the historical relationship between Native tribes and the state of California. The goal is to set the record straight “in the spirit of truth and healing.” 

And he’s tied the Tribal Nature-Based Solutions Program  — which recently awarded $107.7 million to support the return of approximately 38,950 acres of land to California Native American tribes — to the 30×30 initiative to conserve 30 percent of California lands and coastal waters by 2030. Two tribes in the Central Coast Area, the Amah Mutsun and the Esselen, are benefiting from it. 

“I’ll give credit to Newsom administration heads of agencies of natural resources for putting focus on work with getting into right relationships with California Native peoples,” Saunders said. These efforts have translated into grant programs that support the work of land trust entities aligned with tribes. 

“We’ve been in relationship with some of the local tribes for nine years,” Saunders said. “In one way or another there’s been public funding that’s been able to support some of the work that we wanted to do.”


Monterra Road leads to multimillion-dollar homes on the edge of Monterey and Del Rey Oaks. As it meanders away from Highway 68, it slices the Hiss Parcel on its easternmost border. The parcel, itself demarcated by Highway 68, is both easily accessible and secluded. Once you locate it, there’s no parking and no trails, no way to explore it beyond the edges.

But its beauty can be appreciated even from the fringes. It offers the serene quality of almost undisturbed nature, tree canopies covering carpets of grass, birds chirping and other critters squirreling about. You could almost forget you’re a stone’s throw from the airport were it not for the noticeable takeoffs and landings. 

Ramirez, whose ultimate goal is to regain federal recognition for her tribe, has big dreams for this land. It has no services — no running water, no electricity — but it has the trees and the marshes and the critters. It could house a center for tribal members to meet, be together and get to know each other, to learn more about who they are as people — something that was taken from them, along with the land itself and their traditions. Basket weaving. Beading. Their own language. 

“What we need to do is learn to take care of the land. There’s a lot of native plants on it and we want to make sure we keep the native plants. For the oak trees, make sure there’s no sudden oak death,” Ramirez said. 

It’s going to be a while before the land is transferred to the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, Saunders of The Big Sur Land Trust said.

“OCEN will be able to do certain activities on the land: gathering, educational opportunities, promoting cultural resources, plant gardens of special culturally significance, and have managed access on the property,” she said.  

“Ultimately, when we come to a time when we’re ready and OCEN is ready, the Coastal Conservancy will have to approve the transfer.”

When OCEN is ready to build a small structure on the land, it will have to be approved by the conservancy and local authorities — the city of Monterey. 

“It’s hard to know how long this could take,” Saunders said. “We want this to be successful, we want the tribe to be successful here and make sure they have what they need to take on landownership and all its responsibilities, so we’re looking forward to helping the process and helping them through it.” 

Ramirez is not naive about the hurdles ahead — it’s nothing she hasn’t faced before. But she’s a marathon runner, not a sprinter. An ultramarathoner. What keeps her going is imagining getting to the finish line, savoring the moment in which her people can gather on their ancestral land. On their own terms. 

“There are many ways to teach young people about our culture. I have a game to learn (Esselen) words of action through charades. And we do bingo games. Sitting around the fire at night telling stories; teaching the younger people about respect. About honoring the elders and supporting the elders, the way we know used to be, and just let anybody who has that story talk. As long as they get used to each other learning they are all friends and family bringing back the basic things.” 

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About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.