As far back as 9,000 years ago, the Acjachemen and Tongva people hunted, fished and foraged for nuts and berries at Bolsa Chica Mesa. This is where they gathered herbs for medicines and held prayer ceremonies. Here, on a raised landmass that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, is where they buried their dead.
Today, descendants of those original inhabitants can call a piece of the mesa their own once again.
With the recent transfer of 6.2 acres to the two tribes for conservation and cultural use, Indigenous Californians for the first time have land in Orange County that is back in their hands, a dedicated space where they can practice traditions that were in place millenniums before the construction of Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt or the temples of Greece.
It's a major achievement for the LandBack movement in Southern California, a branch of the nationwide campaign by tribes to reclaim and protect ancestral territories that were encroached upon and seized by the United States — California included.
The acquisition announcement came as Native American leaders prepared to gather for the two-day White House Tribal Nations Summit, which kicked off on Wednesday with President Biden promising to usher in a new era of cooperation with Native Americans by giving them greater authority over their homelands. A delegation from California pressed administration officials to grant federal monument status to hundreds of thousands of acres, including areas that are important to Indigenous people in the San Gabriel Mountains, adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park and in the Medicine Lake Highlands near Mt. Shasta.
The Orange County parcel, which lies at the border of Huntington Beach, is minuscule by comparison but is deeply personal to two of the tribal leaders who will help lead the restoration of the oceanfront site: Dustin Murphey, who is Acjachemen, and Tina Calderon, who is of Tongva as well as Chumash, Mexican and Yoeme descent. They are the president and treasurer respectively of the nonprofit Acjachemen Tongva Land Conservancy, a coalition dedicated to acquiring, preserving and protecting the tribes' shared homelands in Southern California.
A fierce ocean breeze rustles the trees and hawks circle low overhead as Calderon and Murphey make their way down a dirt path at the site. They wind through an expanse of crackling stands of arid brush, shaggy palms and tall yellowing grass that's surrounded by beach homes, apartments and a wetland reserve.
They say that to understand what it means for tribes to reclaim a piece of California, you have to understand that "land" means something different to their communities.
"We hold title — that's a huge thing," Calderon says.
But tribal members didn't just get land back. Given many attempts over centuries to displace Indigenous Californians and erase their culture, gaining territory is tantamount to reclaiming a part of yourself, Calderon and Murphey say.
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