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The Esselen People

Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s palms, no more,
No other picture. There’s no one to say
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended
Religion or magic, or made their tracings
In the idleness of art; but over the division of years these careful
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: "Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail
You people with cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country: enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human."

   — Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

Hands. Ancient pictographs imprinted on the wall of a rock shelter, twelve miles due east of Esalen in the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. These hands—"signs-manual" Robinson Jeffers calls them—speak to us across an abyss of time. They proclaim that once, countless generations before us, other humans dwelt upon this land, "in the beautiful country."

These mysterious hands, with their long, flame-like fingers, were left by Esselen people nearly 4,000 years ago. The people who produced these images probably dipped their fingertips into a lime mixture, pressed them against the rock wall, then filled in the remainder of the hands with vertical lines. Today we might call these images "rock art."

Anthropologists speculate that these hands were part of a ceremonial ritual, perhaps a coming-of-age rite. We will never be certain, we can only guess.

These hands touch something within us. They seem alive. Like Jeffers, we search for their message. Are they reaching upward? Outward? Are they praying? In the simple act of pressing, were the human hands that created these images making this simple declaration: "We are here"?

The Esselen are the Native American people whose homeland once encompassed about 750 square miles of the Ventana Wilderness, including the land where Esalen Institute now sits. They are the original tribe from whom the modern Esalen clan—the worldwide family who in some way look to Esalen as "homeland"—takes its name.

The name Esselen most probably derives from a tribal location known as Ex’selen, "the rock," which is in turn derived from the phrase Xue elo xonia eune, "I come from the rock." Like the picto-graphs on a rock wall that today proclaim their ancient existence, the Esselen people came from the rock.

As imagined by Jeffers, the hands say: Here were a people who recognized that they were merely transitory custodians of this heart-stirring land, that they, and all the succeeding generations who dwelt here, would enjoy but a brief season before the Wheel of Life rolled unalterably on.

What is their message to us today? Who were these native people whom we have "supplanted" upon this land? What, if anything, do we share with the Esselen besides the immutable certainty that, like them, we will one day be supplanted as caretakers of the sacred land?

Little is actually known of the Esselen, but anthropologists and historians have drawn a number of conclusions. The Esselen presence in Central California dates back 10,000 years. Evidence suggests that they were drawn here by the hot springs, which were used for healing (the Esselen word for the springs was believed to mean "the god in the waters"). They were a short, stocky people, with dark hair and eyes. Light-skinned at birth, they were reputed to turn a dull black from so much time in the sun. The men had facial hair.

The Esselen seem to have been a peaceful people, for there is no evidence of their ever having engaged in major warfare. Traders and sharers, they bartered acorns, fish, salt, baskets, hides and pelts, shells and beads. Their diet consisted primarily of acorns, which they cooked into a mush or baked as bread. From the Pacific, they caught and gathered fish, abalone, and mussels. And from the sloping, grassy Big Sur hills, they hunted the deer.

The deer. Their kinship with the deer symbolized their relationship with the entire natural world. The deer was a brother spirit. For the men, hunting was a religious activity for which they prepared with several days of purification and fasting. If during this time they needed nourishment, they ate only what the deer ate—grasses and berries. Then, they waited for a favorable vision to "invite" them to hunt.

Believing that they were one and the same spirit with the deer, they often chewed a native tobacco, a strong hallucinogenic, in order to "get the deer drunk." Then, with bow and arrow, they would hunt the deer not as conquerors but as brothers. After the hunt, during the skinning of the deer, should anyone become impatient or angry, they paused and rested so as not to offend "the Spirit of Deer." In this, as in all that they did, the Esselen were a part of, not apart from, Nature.

They had the capacity to listen to and learn from all things. They saw that everything was alive—the redwood trees, the forest trails, the breeze, the ocean, the rocks, moon, and stars—and everything had power, memory, intelligence, and history. Accordingly, they named everything they saw: trees, boulders, landmarks, the trails they traveled. They would even give separate names to different sections of a trail if they sensed a change in its energy.

For the Esselen, the spirit world and the physical world were inseparable. Similarly, their waking and dreaming states were equally alive and real. Songs were alive, entering a person like an animal spirit. Dance was alive, a form of prayer with the body.

Shamans were the intermediaries to the spirit world and to subtler levels of reality. The shamans could be either men or women. The women were practiced and wise in the ways of healing with herbs and plants. For a plant’s healing power to be effective, it was necessary that a woman have a deep connection with that plant. In the same way, if a plant was harvested without reverence, its healing potential would be compromised.

The tribal elders were deeply honored. The Esselen believed that in order to live a long life one must have a good relation to the spirit world. The elders were regarded as a reservoir of tribal myths, plant and animal lore, the cycle of songs and dances, the names and customs of foreign tribes, and the location and spiritual power of all of the sacred places in the territory. The tribal totem was the owl, which they believed to be "the Spirit of the Ancestors."

For the Esselen, the well-being of the tribe—and, by extension, the well-being of the natural world from which they felt inseparable—was considered the highest good. At the same time they practiced an unconditional inclusivity that allowed room for every member of the tribe, no matter how divergent. While all activities were directed toward the community’s welfare, they excluded no one for they believed that each individual held a piece of the truth.

The earliest written accounts of the Esselen come from what was probably their first contact with Europeans in 1602, when Spanish sea captain Sebastian Vizcaino sailed into Monterey Bay. Vizcaino wrote of the Esselen: "They seem to be gentle and peaceful people..." According to Fray Antonio de la Ascencion, who accompanied Vizcaino: "The port is all surrounded with...affable Indians, good natives and well-disposed, who like to give what they have...They go naked at this port."

As the Spanish presence in Central California increased, the Native American population slowly dwindled. Numbering about 1200 at their peak, the Esselen were commonly thought to have been missionized out of existence near the close of the eighteenth century by the Spanish colonizers and priests who pressed them into indentured service and introduced diseases against which the Esselen had no immunity.

More recent evidence indicates, however, that some Esselen escaped the missions, retreating into the rugged interior mountains and surviving thereafter by denying their Indian heritage. Today there are no full-blooded Esselen remaining; estimates of their descendants vary from about 80 people to the approximately 350 members enrolled in Esselen Nation (according to the Esselen Nation Tribal Council).

Esselen artifacts—arrowheads, Stone Age tools, abalone shells—can still occasionally be found at Esalen (carbon dating reveals them to be as old as 4,630 years). The rich soil of the Esalen garden sits upon a 4000-year-old Esselen shell mound. At every turn, one hears ancient whispers, reminders of the indigenous people whom we, with our "cleverer hands" (in Jeffers’s words), have supplanted.

Following this thread, perhaps it is not far-fetched to imagine that the Esselen hands also survive today, reincarnated into a parallel 21st-century world as the hands of Esalen massage practitioners whose work unifies body, mind, and spirit.

Here at Esalen, in our attempts to create meaningful ritual—symbolic ceremonies to mark our days, to deepen our sense of connection with the earth, the heavens, and all of the living beings with whom we are inextricably interwoven—we, "the supplanters," have often borrowed from Native American traditions: the talking stick, the sweat lodge, the fire circle, the drum, the rattle. We long for the unstrained unity, belonging, and reverence that we imagine our predecessors possessed. We labor to effortlessly embrace a feeling of oneness with the world. In this regard, our own cultural heritage of meaningful ritual seems like a well run dry.

Esselen people at Esalen Institute


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