PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. — The U.S. Army has called Monterey Bay home for nearly 170 years. Prior to the arrival of our military, and California achieving statehood in 1850, several nations including Spain, Mexico, and Argentina visited or laid claim to Monterey Bay.
Spanish explorers and soldiers played a major role in shaping early Monterey. In 1542, Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo became the first European to sail into the bay. In 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno was the first to set foot on land and named the area ‘Monte Rey’. Famously in 1770, Franciscan priest Junípero Serra arrived and established Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, better known as Carmel Mission. While these events are usually what get highlighted as people reflect on the history of the region, Monterey Bay has a human history dating back thousands of years.
The ancestors of the modern Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation witnessed each of these arrivals and felt their direct impact.
Over their history, the native peoples of the Monterey Bay region have had several labels applied to them. European settlers, state offices, and various agencies of the U.S. government have referred to their people as the ‘Monterey Band of Monterey County’ and ‘San Carlos Indians, living near the old San Carlos Mission at Monterey’.
“We’ve been here forever, and [we are] still being ignored forever. There’s still not an acknowledgment of our people by the government.” said Louise Miranda Ramirez, the chair of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation.
The first time the tribe could self-identify in government documents was in the 1928 California Indian Jurisdictional Act. For the purpose of the act, tribal elders and their families referred to themselves as the “Mission San Carlos” or “Esselen.” By this time the tribe had spent generations cut off from their culture as the Spanish established missions and forced the tribes into them.
“In 1770, when Serra came into the area and started to build the missions and take our people in as prisoners . . . you became part of the church, and you could not leave.” said Ramirez.
The native villages which populated Monterey Bay were replaced by the development of the city of Monterey and the surrounding communities. Little remained of the native culture beside artifacts and burial sites.
Between 1851 and 1852 the U.S. Government negotiated treaties with tribes located in California with the intent of friendship and peace. The ‘Eighteen Unratified Treaties’, as they came to be called, were authorized by the Senate, but never ratified. These treaties paved the way for the federal recognition of many tribes in the state. However, coastal tribes were excluded because government agents spoke mainly to tribes living in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and San Joaquin Valley.
Ramirez said this makes her members feel like the government is saying, “You guys didn’t sign the treaty. You didn’t exist.”
These wounds run deep in the native community. Even as she was growing up in the 1950’s, Ramirez was told by her grandfather to say she was of Mexican descent to avoid further persecution. As she grew older, Ramirez sought information about her ancestors and their history.
“I remember in the sixties, I wrote to the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] in Sacramento, and they sent us a letter saying this is who you are. This is your native percentage, blood quantum, but there’s no tribe for you.” said Ramirez. “You’re ‘Mission Indian’ from Carmel, and that was about it.”
One of the few positive aspects of having ancestors brought up in the Spanish mission system was that the priests kept detailed records. In their historic papers were the native names, families, villages, and relative ages of every native person they brought in.
“Thank goodness it was written because we can still read it. We can still follow it. Now we can change.” said Ramirez.
With these limited documents, the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation is focused on reconstructing their tribal history, reestablishing their place in the story of Monterey Bay and fighting to be federally recognized. The tribe’s direct ancestors served as linguistic consultants to the Smithsonian Museum’s Bureau of American Ethnology during the 1930’s, and today tribal members are learning once again to speak their native language. They are also working to preserve their native culture by once again performing ceremonies that were outlawed for generations. Their artifacts and burial sites dot the Monterey peninsula, and many recent achievements come from making sure their ancestors are properly honored.
The modern Presidio of Monterey lies atop the collected history of Monterey Bay. Foreign ships landed along the Lower Presidio and constructed their first forts at the bottom of the hill. The Buffalo Soldiers later maintained horse stables on the same ground. The Presidio of Monterey Museum now stands on this site. But before all of that, the first people to occupy the Monterey Bay called the land at the Presidio of Monterey their home. Many of their remains are still located below our feet.
In 2019, burial artifacts and the remains of 17 ancestors of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation were interred in the Presidio of Monterey cemetery. The tribe held a ceremony and laid their forebears to rest where they lived and died before their remains were disturbed. A further commitment was made that any additional remains separated from their original burial ground will have the opportunity to be interred in the cemetery as well.
“When additional ancestors are disturbed, we will re-bury there again.” said Ramirez.
The Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, like most tribes, counts many veterans among their 600 current members, and the generations that came before them. During National Native American Heritage Month, we honor the storied legacy of American Indians and Alaska Natives in our nation. Their cherished legacy, rich cultures, and heroic history of military service inspire us all. This month, as we recommit to supporting Native American tribes and people, we resolve to work side-by-side with their leaders to secure stronger, safer communities and preserve their sacred heritage for future generations.