In sun-kissed Monterey, clues to the coast’s Esselen past are everywhere.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread. In the middle of downtown Monterey, a granite statue of Father Junipero Serra, considered by many to be the “founder of California,” sits high on a cypress-ringed hill above the fisherman’s wharf. It commemorates the site of the first California mission, built exactly 250 years ago. But for the Esselen, the Native American tribe who once claimed this coast, Monterey’s origins aren’t so easily defined. The Esselen’s history is tricky to pin down. Archaeologists confirm there have been humans here for at least 9,000 years. The area is dotted with burial sites, yielding human bones, arrowheads, and other ceremonial artifacts like abalone shells and glass beads. But other than that, little evidence remains. The Esselen are one of the dozens of California tribes denied federal recognition. In older textbooks, they were mistakenly believed to be extinct. Louise Miranda Ramirez has dedicated her life to keeping her family’s history alive. Louise is a tribal chairwoman and a descendant of one of the 13 core families of the Esselen tribe. Before Monterey was ever called Monterey, Esselen civilization thrived here. Dance ceremonies took place in circular huts; families fished lobster and king salmon off the rocky coastline; and in the rainy season, they took refuge under the towering redwoods. The Esselen is not a well-known tribe. As native populations go, they were on the small side, totaling fewer than 1,000 members. But because of where they lived—the blissful, rugged Monterey peninsula, with Big Sur as their backyard—their ancient presence carries extra weight. “I don’t think you can appreciate the land if you don’t know the history of it,” says Louise, who argues there’s more to experience in the year-round destination than just the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Steinbeck’s beloved Cannery Row.
“If you want to know about us, all you have to do is listen to the wind, the birds in the trees, the ocean.”
Twenty-four-year-old Jordon Casares, who was raised near Sacramento and is part Esselen, echoes his grandmother’s words. In his eyes, paying tribute to Native culture doesn’t mean visiting specific sites, but rather, cultivating an appreciation of the landscape as a whole. “If you want to know about us, all you have to do is listen to the wind, the birds in the trees, the ocean,” he suggests. That being said, there are areas you can go to that hold special meaning for the Esselen. At the Monarch Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, thousands of monarch butterflies show up each October during their yearly “overwinter” migration. The butterflies form splendid clusters around the tall eucalyptus trees—but the grove holds equal importance for the Esselen, too. “It’s a place of spirit,” Jordon says. “We do ceremonies there. We bless the trees, we bless the land, it’s a way for us to be in community.” At the peninsula’s northern tip, a leisurely coastal road hugs the dramatic curves of Asilomar State Beach. Endless clusters of tidal pools offer up starfish, rock crab, and colorful sea anemone. A path winds in and out of the dunes, all the way from Pebble Beach to downtown Monterey, and when you walk it, you can easily picture the Esselen people surveying the Pacific for their next saltwater feast. (Fun fact: the beach is dog friendly!) Further south, the iconic 17-mile Drive in Pebble Beach, the only private toll road in the west, is an excellent date spot, Jordon tells me. Nevermind the long stretches of unbroken sea views; thanks to the toll ($10.50 per car), you’re less likely to find other people on the beach. “You have to pay a little, but once you get there, literally no one will bother you.” It may sound strange to hear a Native person championing the admission fee to a beach that his ancestors enjoyed for free, but Jordon is well aware of the irony. “We can’t tell these people to leave,” he says, referring to the county’s 437,000 residents (and nearly 5 million annual visitors, pre-COVID), “They’re a part of our home. We have to find a way to work together.” That balance plays out in Ventana Wilderness, a vast backcountry encompassing the northern corridor of the Santa Lucia Mountains, just behind Big Sur. Here, day hikers come for swimming holes, silent redwood groves, and the summit of Pico Blanco, a soaring 3,700-foot peak where you can witness central California’s majestic coast laid out at your feet.
“When we go into a forest, we ask the forest for permission. When we go onto the beach, we should ask the beach for permission. We say, ‘Can I join you, can I sit with you for a while?’”
It’s a truly magical spot and one that’s considered sacred in Esselen lore. According to their creation myth, a great flood washed out the earth; in its wake, a coyote, eagle, hummingbird, and a single woman were stranded at what is now Little Sur River. The coyote and woman were responsible for creating new life, and the result was the Esselen nation. Today, Jordon and his family refer to the mountain by its native name, Watiyi. There is innate environmentalism at the heart of Esselen beliefs (and all Native American communities); an acknowledgment of the land as a living, breathing thing. When I ask Jordon how travelers can approach these sites with a greater sense of consideration, his answer is simple: ask permission. “When we go into a forest, we ask the forest for permission. When we go onto the beach, we should ask the beach for permission. We say, ‘Can I join you, can I sit with you for a while?’” Given how much of their history has been lost, how do Esselen people like Jordon find a way to connect to their past? By coming together. Each August, local members of the Esselen tribe take part in a yearly tribal gathering. Hosted at the Lower Presidio of Monterey, the very spot where Father Serra stands watch over the harbor, descendants of the original Esselen come together for three days of informal storytelling, group performances, and family reunions. It’s also a way to piece back a past that’s been taken away. “For me, it means we have the chance to sit down and listen to each other’s stories, learn where all of us have come from,” says Jordon, who, along with his grandmother Louise, has attended the last six gatherings. “We can put all of that together and build a beautiful quilt of all our families’ histories.” It’s a good reminder for travelers, too. Peering beyond the golf resorts and novelty statues, we often find there’s more to a place than first meets the eye.