Esselen Nation battles the government for land and a cultural center and itself for tribal power.

Culture Wars: Army of One: While the rest of Monterey County celebrated East Garrison’s groundbreaking, Rudy Rosales held a one-man protest.— Jane Morba

For a decade the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation envisioned a cultural and spiritual center on Fort Ord. The tribe lost a bid for about 12 acres in Seaside but, say tribe leaders, was promised 45 acres near East Garrison. Local government leaders say they want to work with the Monterey County Indians. The trouble is, they have yet to see any proof of this promise.

And so, on Monday, April 9, as the rest of Monterey County celebrated groundbreaking at East Garrison, a planned housing and arts community on Fort Ord, Rudy Rosales, who heads cultural resources for the tribe, stood outside the party in protest.

On paper the Esselen are both landless and unrecognized. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has yet to process the tribe’s request for federal recognition. The Army hasn’t transferred any land to the Esselen, according to both the local and state agencies that oversee Fort Ord redevelopment. Monterey County, which owns the disputed parcel, hasn’t seen a signed land agreement either.

“We’d prefer that one group was promoting an Indian cultural facility on the base.”

Rosales says such an agreement exists but he has yet to produce one. The county, Rosales says, is trying to take back the land so it can develop it as part of East Garrison. Rosales says this just another instance of the government breaking treaties and usurping land that the US gave to indigenous tribes.

“It annoys the hell out of me,” he says, “because it’s the same thing that has been going on for 1,000 years. They say, ‘We gave them the important property. Now we want it back.’ ”

While county officials, local dignitaries and hundreds of residents joined in the festivities on the site of the soon-to-be-built, mixed-use development Monday, Rosales held a one-man protest in front of the project’s gates. East Garrison is the one big housing project on Fort Ord that is widely considered to be well-planned, pedestrian-friendly, and designed around new urbanist ideals. The project, which includes an arts district and a town center, will have 1,400 homes on 244 acres.  

Jim Cook, director of Housing and Redevelopment for the county, says the property Esselen claims is outside of the East Garrison development area. Cook says he will recognize any signed land agreement. And if there wasn’t a land conveyance to the tribe, he says his department will still work with the Esselen Nation. “We are very supportive of what they want to do,” he says, “it’s a matter of figuring out how to get there.”

Complicating matters is the fact that another Native American group wants Fort Ord land for cultural gatherings. Fred Pierce, a Meherrin and Lakota Indian who lives in Prunedale, manages the Akicita Luta Intertribal Society. Pierce says the group is working with county officials and East Garrison developers to obtain 43 acres for tribal gatherings.

Cook says things would be easier if the vision of the Esselen and the Intertribal Society could be combined. “We’d prefer that there would be one group that was sponsoring and promoting an Indian cultural facility on the base,” he says.

But it doesn’t look like this will happen. For years, the Esselen have been fighting with each other for control of the tribal council. They aren’t likely to unite with the Intertribal Society when they can’t even get along with their relatives.

• • •

The homepage for esselennation.net doesn’t have a colorful introduction to the history of the first inhabitants of the Monterey County area. Instead, the homepage is a manifesto.

“There is no legitimate [Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation] tribal council at this date or since October 2006,” it says. “But, rather than pretend that all is well and treat people like mushrooms, the tribal members deserve to know what is going on as does the world around us.”

Lorraine Escobar, former councilmember and the tribe’s genealogist, wrote this passage. She also controls the Web site. Escobar is one of nine tribal council members to resign—or get booted off the board—between the fall of 2005 and October 2006. She says a power struggle over the tribal council has fragmented its members. “I am really sickened by the fact that so many big fish have tried to take over this little pond,” Escobar says.

Rosales calls the Web site inflammatory and accuses Escobar of causing dissention among the tribe.

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Many had hoped an election in September 2005 would settle the Esselen’s disputes. The courts ordered the election after the tribe split into two factions, one led by Rosales and the other by Duane Thielman, a cabinetmaker from Clovis. The members elected Cari Herthel to the post of tribal chair, but the infighting continued. A little over a year into her term, Herthel resigned.

In October 2006 the tribal council rescinded Escobar’s appointment, essentially kicking Escobar off the board. She immediately began circulating a petition calling for a new election, which, she says, is required under the tribe’s constitution. But the petition failed to get another signatures to mandate an election.

Louise Miranda Ramirez, interim chairwoman of the council, says she is not opposed to an election but the tribe doesn’t have $900 to fund one. She says she hopes the tribe can stop fighting and focus on becoming a federally-recognized tribe and preserving the language and culture of the Esselen.

“Anybody who complains about this council needs to stop fighting and try to work together,” she says.

• • •

Meanwhile, Rosales says he will likely meet with the East Garrison developers this week. Because of his protest, Keith McKoy of Urban Community Partners signed an agreement to consult with Rosales regarding Native American artifacts and remains found on East Garrison. 

THE WEEKLY TALLY 35
The number of California’s 58 counties that have a plurality of registered Republican voters. Nevertheless, Democrats maintain a 43 percent-34 percent edge overall in registered voters overall. (Independents and Greens come in around 2 and 1 percent, respectively.) Source: The California Secretary of State’s Report of Registration, sos.ca.gov/elections/elections_u.htm.

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