Thursday, December 9, 2004
Four different expedition logs from the late 18th century recount an Esselen “hunting technique” involving the hunters’ custom of donning deer hides, heads and antlers to sneak up on their prey. Only the fourth log, that of English captain George Vancouver, points out that this was actually more of a “floor show” to entertain the padre and his guests after dinner in the mission.
Although subsequent ethnographies treated this piece of theater as cultural fact, local archaeologists Gary Breschini and Trudy Haversat set the record straight in their new book, The Esselen Indians of the Big Sur Country.
“Instead of mining nuggets from the more synthetic publications, we went back to the original sources, and in doing so found a lot of errors in our historical perception of the Esselen,” Breschini says.
So many, in fact, that they included an appendix devoted entirely to identifying these mistakes, the time and place where they were made, and the ways they’ve been perpetuated by generations of ethnographers and archaeologists over the years.
It is this attention to detail that makes their book so remarkable. The Esselen Indians represents the culmination of more than 30 years of the Salinas-based couple’s research in the Big Sur Mountains and the Ventana Wilderness.
“We designed it so even a reader just browsing through looking at photos and reading captions can take away a great deal of information about the Esselen and their ancestral territory,” Breschini says.
Breschini and Haversat have scattered lush photographs throughout the book at random, rather than arranging them in a strict order within the appropriate chapter.
“We want to make this book like traveling the Big Sur back country,” they write in the Preface. “You are never quite sure what lies around the next bend in the trail.”
In addition to being gorgeous, The Esselen Indians is also a comprehensive and groundbreaking work that sheds light on the past.
“In the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, these detailed ethnographies on California Indian groups were published and the small nation of the Esselen was not really dealt with,” Breschini says. “Our goal with this book was to complete the story.”
Historically, the Esselen have been left out of more general books about California Indians and are often cited as the first California group to become culturally extinct. The Esselen had the misfortune to be in close proximity to two of the earliest California missions (Mission San Carlos in Monterey and Mission San Antonio in south county). Recent evidence suggests that some individuals may have avoided the mission system entirely by taking refuge in the rugged interior mountains.
But Breschini is quick to point out that the book is an ethnography, meaning it deals solely with Esselen past.
“We did want to show there were descendants,” he says. “But the real goal wasn’t speaking for the modern Esselen.”
Instead, Breschini and Haversat spent countless hours poring over expedition logs, mission records and other archival material, including all four volumes of Junipero Serra’s personal correspondence (“letter by letter,” Breschini says) to provide this unique portrait of the little-understood tribe.
Breschini also credits a great deal of the book’s unparalleled detail to Sacramento Valley-based ethnographer Randy Milliken, whose recent work mapping Indian genealogies through the California mission records has filled in a lot of holes in the Esselen story. “We’d be getting a very small amount of the story without it,” he says.
Regardless, the book has been three decades in the making and “more-or-less” represents Breschini and Haversat’s life work.
“We had an early version of the ethnography in 1994 where we’d pulled together a small amount of data on the Esselen into one place, but in the last ten years it’s changed formats several times,” Breschini says. “The development of computers was key in the production of the book.”
That’s because the entire book was done “in-house,” meaning Breschini and Haversat produced everything—research, writing, layout, photographs…everything. Needless to say, the project has been all-consuming.
“We’re very pleased with the book, particularly with sharing the natural history of the area,” Breschini says. “Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness are so steep and rugged many people can’t get there themselves. The book reveals the area’s beauty and hidden resources to the people so they can enjoy them as we have for years.”
Although Breschini contends they have no plans for a next book, they’ve been conducting new research in Salinan country south of Big Sur proper.
“We’re happy to have the book behind us and get back out in the hills for a while,” he says. “We’re having fun exploring some new territory.”
Breschini and Haversat will present a slide show and sign books at 3pm on Saturday at the Big Sur Grange. The Esselen Indians of the Big Sur Country is available at the Thunderbird Bookstore, the Henry Miller Library, the Star Market in Salinas and on-line at www.coyotepress.com.