The Esselen Indians

The Esselen Hands

I am an artist, I do not claim to be an expert on the Esselen.  I have passionately studied them for about 25 years, and the following is some of what I have found.

The word Esselen either means "the rock," "the people" ("we" as opposed to "them"), or it is a place name and has no meaning.

Carbon dating of the Esselen Indians in Big Sur goes back about 5,000 years. I am sure the Esselen have been here at least 6 - 8,000 years.

The Esselen people were short and stocky, with dark hair and dark eyes. They had big eyes, flat noses, and beautiful flaring cheek bones. The men had facial hair. They were a light skinned people and would spend so much time in the sun, their skin would turn a dull black. As they got older their skin would turn a dull grey.

Generally the men would be naked all year round, the women would wear a small apron of fiber. Sometimes when it was cold they would cover themselves with mud. In cold weather they might also wear rabbit or deerskin capes. A rabbit cape would take about 200 rabbits to make; the fur would be twisted and attached to the next piece. The chiefs might have worn otter skin capes.

Every morning the Esselen would "encourage the sun up." Generally everyone in the triblet would go into the creek together as a morning ritual.

The Esselen people would name everything: the individual trees, large rocks, paths, even different parts of a path would have a different name because the energy was different. They believed everything was alive, everything had power, everything had emotion, intelligence, and everything had memory - the stars, the moon, the breeze, the ocean, the streams, the trees, the rocks, everything.

At rock art sites, it was believed that if a native were to put their hand into a hand that was carved on the rock, they literally could tune into all the ceremony that ever happened at the site - because rocks hold memory. (It is not advisable to touch rock art for the oil on our hands will deteriorate the rock art).

When I use the word "art," I use it loosely, in most California tribes, there was no word for art or even religion, because everything they did was art and religion; it was not a "separate" activity.

The Esselen were a simple people. In their archeological history in Big Sur, we have never found the remnants of major war. The Esselen did not get along well with their neighbors to the south, the Salinians. Every few years they would meet and stand maybe 100 yards apart, rant and rave, throw spears, rocks, etc. We might call it posturing, yet as soon as any blood was let, everything would stop.

Esselen territory to the south ended around Big Creek (Carbon dates go back 6,000 years there), to the north it ended at the Little Sur River, and inland close to King City and Gonzales. There were about 1,200 Esselen in their prime. There are still over 87 people with ties to the Esselen lineage.

The Esselen people spoke the Hokan language. In olden times Hokan-speaking people lived from what is now Canada to Mexico along the coast. Hokan is a guttural language, and possibly the oldest in California.

The Esselen lived in small communities called triblets. From one triblet to the next, with maybe a canyon separating them, their language may be not mutually understood because the dialects had changed so much over time.

The women owned the houses, which were conical shaped huts made of mud and sticks. So when a man came home and his possessions were outside the hut, he was out, no back talk, no lawyers, that was just the way it was.

They could actually make their own money. Their monetary system was Olivalla shells, they were shaped and drilled. Their value was measured by the hand and appraised by how much care/craftsmanship went into their making.

The women were very wise in terms of plants and herbs. It was a wisdom that was passed down from mother to daughter. A woman could have all the information in the world about a plant or an herb, yet if she didn't have a relationship with that plant or herb, it wouldn't work, so intellectual understanding in and of itself was worthless unless there was also a connection. Even gathering plants was done with reverence so the plants would feel honored and share their healing properties.

Stone age tools were simple, practical, and very effective: scrapers for hides, bird points for arrows, knives, spear points, and mortars and pestals for grinding. Arrow straighteners were heated and an arrow shaft was rubbed over it until straight; abalone shells were used as bowls or scoops by filling their holes with asphaltum (tar or pitch).

Healing was done by chanting or dancing, usually for two or three days at a time. A song was seen as a living thing, it would come to a person like an animal, and would be deeply honored and respected. Dancing was a form of ritual and a way of life, a form of body prayer, that was a way of connecting and communicating with the universe.

Another way for a Shaman to heal was by sucking. Usually with a hollow bone, a Shaman would scan the ill person's body, find where the disease was, and suck it out of them with the hollow bone. Sometimes the Shaman would put a round black shiny stone in their mouth, suck out the disease, spit out the stone, and say, "here is your disease." They could also have used the stone to prevent the disease from going into their own body. They also might put coyote hair in the back of their mouth and spit that out (which must have looked very gnarly). This, though, was not always slight of mouth. What they my have believed is that coyote medicine absorbed the disease. For a Shaman to put coyote hair in their mouth was a very big deal. It would definitely have to be an ally and power animal of theirs to put the hair in their mouths. The word for "power" was the same word for "poison" in most California languages. For example, coyote needed to be an ally of the Shaman for them to touch it, let alone put it into their mouth. Coyote was in the creation myth of the Esselen and had great power/poison. Also, if people were not healed, the Shaman didn't get paid.

Shamanism was a very sincere profession practiced by both men and women. When children would start receiving visions, the elders would see this and the children would apprentice and be guided into healing. Visions that came in the dream state or waking state were equally as honored and real.

The totem for the Esselen was the Owl. The Owl represented "the spirit of the Ancestors" and was deeply revered. For many Native People the Owl will represent transcendence.

Some Esselen would call this area "The Window to the West." The wilderness here is the Ventana Wilderness, and Ventana in Spanish means window. It is believed that the souls from all native people would pass between Mount Manuel and Pico Blanco and go off to the setting Sun - "the Isle of the Dead."

During many of the burials, the Esselen were often placed in the fetal position/flexed and chiefs were cremated. The Esselen believed the dead would travel to the Isle of the Dead. When someone died, their name was never spoken again until a child from that lineage was born to take the name. To use someone's "real" name was to call them present, and the dead had their world, and the living theirs.

They did believe in a form of reincarnation.

When someone died, their house was burned, and their tools broken, partially to keep the curious dead from returning. As an Esselen, if you lost someone close to you, you would singe your hair, put tar on your face, and ash all over your body for a number of months, so if the spirit returned, they would not recognize you. Also if you lost someone close to you, you would wear an amulet around your neck when you went to sleep, to keep the spirit of the dead out of your dreams. People were mourned at their death, and there would also be a large mourning ceremony yearly for everyone that had died.

Food was abundant for the Esselen. They would harvest from the sea: fish, abalone, mussels, limpets (for soup), seals, etc. They created the abolone fish hook about 2,000 years ago. They did have canoes, that would keep them bouyant, although they would be partially immersed in the water. There have been major periods of draught on this coast.

The women would harvest from their fields in the hills, usually around October, with a seed beater and a large basket. They would wear large abalone pendants around their chests, to keep rattlesnakes away (it probably reflected sunlight and jingled to let the snakes know they were there). The women would burn their fields after harvest time. This would bring more animals to eat the fresh shoots next season - good for hunting, and would also keep rampant wild fires from happening (as is the case now).

The main staple for the Esselen was acorns. They had six varieties of acorns to choose from. Live-oak acorns were preferred for mush and deciduous oaks for bread. If all the acorn crops failed, there were always buckeyes to fall back on. The women would crack the acorns with a rock, dry them in the sun, leach the tannin acid out of the acorns by a stream, and grind the them up with a morter and pestal. About 2,000 years ago they started putting asphaltum around the hole of the morter, and attaching a hopper basket (a basket with a large hole on the bottom) to make grinding easier.

Acorn mush could be cooked in waterproof baskets, by filling the basket with water, heating "cooking stones," then putting the stones in the baskets, and stirring. The Esselen did not have clay pots, as baskets were more practical for them to travel with.

The Esselen ate just about everything. Animals that were not eaten were animals with great power/poison such as owls. Yet snakes, grubs, grasshoppers, rabbits, deer, etc. were all a part of their diet.

A child was taught from an early age to share. A boy would never eat his first kill. Elders were always fed and were respected because to live a long life meant you had to be in relation with the spirit world and were thus considered holy.

Also elders were the keepers of wisdom, the knowledge of the many myths, cycles of life: harvest, dances, animal and plant lore, the customs of foreign peoples, and the location and spiritual power of the hundreds of sacred places in the triblet's territory.

Hunting was seen as a sacred event. One way to hunt deer was to actually enter the spirit of deer. The native tobacco here is very strong, almost a hallucinogenic. The men would chew this to get the "deer drunk" because they believed they were all connected/interrelated. On a hillside there could be one deer or a herd of twenty deer, and what they would say is, "there is the spirit of deer."

Prior to the hunt, men would sweat for a number of days. They would always wait for a favorable vision. They would wait to be invited to hunt and were more like suitors than conquerors. Their bow was treated as alive, they would smear it with deer grease before a hunt, never lay it on the ground, always resting it against something, and take it into the sweat with them. When hunting, they could wear a deer skin and deer head. From childhood on, the boys closely studied the movements and ways of deer. When a deer was killed, just about all of it was used. In scraping a hide, if they ever got impatient or upset, they would stop immediately, so as to not offend the spirit of deer. They believed the deer actually sacrificed itself for them. Much reverence was offered. The initiation for a boy to be able to hunt deer would be that he would have to be able to touch one, probably either in the waking or dream states.

The two major clans, called moieties, were the bear and the deer. The Esselen believed they came from these animals. When the Spanish first came through here in 1769, they said that you could just about go up and touch an animal. I believe the Esselen were not afraid of their animal nature, and the animals reciprocated this.

The European diseases, such a small pox, measles, and syphilis, were the major factors of the demise of the ancient Esselen. They had no immunity to these diseases. The Shaman could usually deal with any kind of illness that came, yet they could not cure these. That deeply tore the fabric of Esselen life.

I think the native people help us to remember our connection to this earth and nature. They really knew and understood the cycles of nature, and were a part of them, not apart from them. They held a deeply spiritual sense of nature, believing everything was alive, had feelings, memories, power, and history. I also think it is almost impossible for us to conceive of a time that when we wanted to go somewhere, we walked. What was generally valuable to them was what was plentiful, like the earth and the sky. Also, a deep respect for family and community was held.

I am very grateful to be living today. If you go back in time even 300 years ago, 40 was a long life. I am grateful to have a refrigerator and a roof over my head that doesn't leak. Yet again the connection to all things, the reverence, the honoring, the listening, the slowing down, are practices we can well remember from the Native People.

There was found the remnant of an old Ohlone song (the peoples to the north), "Dancing on the Brink of the World." If you ever make it to the Big Sur coast, you can definitely experience the ancient beauty of this majestic and sacred land.


©Daniel Bianchetta
No reproduction or use without written permission.