Thursday, May 31, 2012
Louise Ramirez stands on the side of Reservation Road in Marina and points through a chain-link fence, past beeping construction machinery, at a green ridge in the distance. “That’s what they promised us, that 45 acres,” she says. “We look at this as home.”
Ramirez is chairwoman of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, descended from the Native Americans of the Central Coast. She’s reviving the Esselen Nation’s 15-year-old request for a piece of the former Fort Ord, where members hope to build a cultural center.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs allows the transfer of surplus federal land to federally recognized tribes, and a letter from the U.S. National Park Service confirms its 1997 approval to convey a 10.5-acre Fort Ord parcel to the Esselen-Hoopa Redevelopment Authority.
Because the Esselen Nation is not a federally recognized tribe, it had partnered with the Hoopa Tribe on the land transfer. But that partnership fell apart, and the land was reallocated to the city of Seaside.
The Esselen Nation then turned to another option: up to 45 acres in the East Garrison area, where the unincorporated county meets the cities of Marina and Salinas. The county was receptive to the Esselen Nation’s bid for a cultural center; a 1998 county fax confirms the discussion of a transfer called a public benefit conveyance.
“Together we would build a cultural center, a roundhouse, a place of gathering,” Ramirez says. “It would be close to the students at CSU [Monterey Bay] so they could come and learn about the indigenous people.”
But without the support of a federally recognized tribe, that proposal stalled too.
“Then,” Ramirez says, “we had problems within the tribe.”
Esselen Nation members got mired in what Ramirez describes as a divisive power struggle that took them to mediation. A settlement led to an election around 2004, and Ramirez became Esselen Nation chairwoman in 2006.
Now Ramirez is revisiting the Fort Ord opportunity. She attended a May 21 Fort Ord Reuse Authority stakeholder meeting, documentation in hand, and asked FORA to honor its 1990s offer.
The land Esselen Nation had its sights on in the ’90s is now under construction as the East Garrison I housing development. But an adjacent parcel called East Garrison II is designated for the county once it’s cleaned up.
“Any decision about what happens with that property is completely within the purview of the county,” says FORA Executive Director Michael Houlemard.
The public benefit conveyance process that once could have given the Esselen Nation a piece of Fort Ord expired more than a decade ago, he adds: “That file is closed.” But the East Garrison II parcel hasn’t been designated yet, and the Esselen Nation could make a formal proposal to the county for it.
Carl Holm, deputy director of the county Resource Management Agency, agrees East Garrison II is the Esselen Nation’s best hope for a piece of Fort Ord. “We don’t have a plan or anything clear,” he says. “At this point it would be up to the Board of Supervisors to negotiate with the tribe as to how they want to dispose of that land.”
County Supervisor Dave Potter, who has sat on the FORA board since the mid-’90s, says the Esselen Nation may be able to build its cultural center without titled real estate. “I’m not averse to some opportunity, and I suspect that opportunity could exist without the ownership of land,” he says.
Potter says he’d be concerned about any casino proposals that might come along with a land transfer. But Ramirez says her people aren’t currently interested in building a casino on Fort Ord. “We usually get one or two requests a year, and we have not accepted any of them,” she says. “We say no because we want hope. We need a place to gather, we need education for our children, we need healthcare. That’s more important to us.”
She does, however, find some irony in the proposed Monterey Downs development, which would include a horse racetrack on the former Fort Ord.
“We’ve been told forever that we don’t want a casino in Monterey County,” she says. “But look what you’re doing – this is still gaming.”
Potter, an early supporter of Monterey Downs, counters: “There’s a big difference in my mind between slot machines, card games and horse racing, which is actually a sport.”
The land of the former Fort Ord was used for thousands of years by Ohlone and Esselen people, according to Carmel Valley ethno-historian Philip Laverty. But today, members of the Esselen Nation are scattered. “To have a place they can call home would be really critical for them in terms of the future of their community,” he says.
Ramirez, who lives in San Jose, agrees. “That’s our main goal,” she says. “To be together first.”