Inside the struggle to preserve Puvungna

When culture bearer Rebecca Robles heard California State University, Long Beach had dumped construction dirt and debris on Puvungna, the 22-acre parcel of land at CSULB culturally, historically, and spiritually significant for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation – Belardes, the Gabrielino/Tongva people and other Native American groups in Southern California, she felt a pain that was all too familiar.

“It felt like something you love is being abused and you were powerless […] it was just an awful feeling. And that’s what fuels what we’re doing,” Robles said.

In September 2019, trucks began transporting dirt and debris to Puvungna from a nearby construction site, the Parkside North Dormitory, a student housing community, as reported by CSULB’s independent student newspaper the Daily 49er.

“It felt like a violation, it was a violation,” Robles said in an interview with the Signal Tribune via Zoom. “We as Indigenous people, survive. We’re all playing by the rules. Many of us are teachers, nurses, realtors, we work at the port. We’re upstanding citizens and we’re trying to preserve our culture. We’re doing things in a legal way […] it was tremendously hurtful because you grow up and you think liberty, justice, freedom of religion and then something like this happens.”

An ancestor pole stands at Puvungna, the 22-acre parcel of sacred land at CSULB. (Image by Robert Bracamontes)

CSULB stands on the ancient site of Puvungna. According to anthropologist and former CSULB professor, Eugene E. Ruyle’s website on Puvungna, the indigenous land once sprawled over an area of approximately 500 acres on and off the campus. The website states that most Puvungna village sites have been destroyed by development. Of the 500 acres, only the 22-acre parcel of the sacred village remains.

History of Puvungna

Puvungna is an important cultural and religious site.

Joyce Perry, who is also an Acjachemen Tribal Scholar, wrote in a statement shared with the Signal Tribune, that according to origin stories, ancestral beings, Wiyot and Chinigchinich, “…were, at this place, responsible for establishing the ceremonies, rites and moral codes necessary for the guiding and preserving Acjachemen life.”

Puvungna was the place where the Kaamalam, or first people, gathered when Wiyot died and mourned awaiting his return. Chinigchinich, referred to as the lawgiver, emerged instead, recreating people in the physical form.

Puvungna is shared with the Gabrielino/Tongva Nation and continues to be a place of gathering and ceremonies. The annual Ancestor Walk, which ends with a Bear Ceremony at Puvungna, starts at Panhe and sees a caravan that travels to seven sacred sites. It was started by Robles’ mother and Acjachemen elder, Lillian Robles, to remember and honor sacred sites and ancestors.

Robles noted the importance that Puvungna represents to many Indigenous people.

“Indigenous people that I know, they always tell me, ‘I’m a Lakota, but I can’t go back to my sacred site, I come here and I pray,’” Robles shared. She noted that although this may not be the sacred site of many Indigenous people she speaks to, they go there and receive comfort.

Pending Lawsuit

Following the 2019 dumping, the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation – Belardes, and the California Cultural Resource Preservation Alliance (CCRPA) filed a lawsuit against the university in October 2019.

This has been widely reported by local outlets such as Forthe, the Daily 49er and Long Beach City College’s Viking News.

According to Winter King, the attorney for the tribe and CCRPA, a motion was also filed to get an injunction to prevent the university from further dumping on Puvungna. However, there was no need for the motion to be heard by the court since the university agreed to stop dumping soil until the litigation was resolved.

The university, members of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation – Belardes, and the CCRPA tried to resolve the issue through settlement negotiations for nearly a year, King told the Signal Tribune. According to Pat Martz, founder of CCRPA, settlement talks stalled and both the tribe and the preservation alliance are moving forward with the lawsuit.

On Thursday, Dec. 3, a trial setting conference will take place where an administrative record will be put together for the case. This is essentially a meeting with the judge and the attorneys for the parties involved where King anticipates the court will provide deadlines for completing the record, brief filings and when a hearing will be held on the merits of the litigation.

“This is a California Environmental Quality Act challenge,” King said. “We’re seeing that the university violated the state’s environmental review statute by deciding to undertake this action without conducting environmental review of its consequences,” the attorney said of the soil dumping.

She continued, “In those cases, there’s an administrative record that we’re preparing, which is the documents that the university relied on prior to making its decision.”

According to King, the university did a CEQA review for the housing construction project, but in the environmental review it was not stated that as part of the project they would dump construction soil on sacred listed sites.

“That particular action wasn’t analyzed,” King said. “Our position is that before changing the construction project to include the soil dumping activity, they needed to do environmental review and adopt mitigation measures and consider alternatives that would be less impactful.”

CSULB’s Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications Jeff Cook stated in an email to the Signal Tribune that it is not in their practice to comment on pending litigation.

However, he did provide background information that has been shared on the university’s website and with other news outlets in the past.

Cook noted that in 2019, the university “relocated” soil that had been excavated “to this site from a nearby student-housing project” and that the work ended on Sept. 28, 2019.

“At the time, keeping soil from campus here on site was the preferable method of managing excavated earth based on counsel we received from Native American advisors,” Cook said in the email. “Site monitors were in place during this work.”

According to Joyce Perry, Tribal Cultural Resource director, the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians-Acjachemen Nation-Belardes were not consulted.

“I don’t know who was consulted, all I can tell you is that we were not,” Perry said in a phone interview with the Signal Tribune.

Furthermore, Cook said in the email that “any minimal construction debris inadvertently included in the relocated soil was incidental and was removed.”

One of the existing demands from the tribe and community leaders is for the debris to be removed.

In response to whether the university has plans to build on top of the 22-acre parcel of sacred land, Cook replied that there are no plans in place for a new parking lot or other structure on the land.

This quick overview shows CSULB land disputes over Puvungna. (Timeline by Emma DiMaggio)

What the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation – Belardes and community leaders want from CSULB

According to a document sent to The Signal Tribune, the tribe and community leaders want the university to agree to a list of commitments which include:

• Preventing the use of heavy machinery moving forward at Puvungna.

• Clean the construction debris that was dumped and relocate the soil that was dumped to a more appropriate place on campus.

• Comply with the already existing requirements that indicate that the university must consult with all culturally affiliated tribal groups and nations when it comes to any decisions about Puvungna.

• Hire an Indigenous plant specialist to restore the area that was damaged.

• Establish a binding agreement to preserve Puvungna forever, the agreement would protect the site from any future disturbance or development by the university.

Additionally, the document states that the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation – Belardes asks the university to “execute a treatment plan” that would restore the site to the way it was before the dumping.

The tribe would like for the university to acknowledge Puvungna as a National Register of Historic Places site, which according to the database, was listed on January 21, 1974 and as a sacred site registered with the California Native American Heritage Commission in the Campus Master Plan.

It is also requested that the university outlines a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in order to avoid any conflicts over the site in the future.

“The MOA should include policies for communication and consultation between university officials and tribal groups culturally affiliated with Puvungna,” the document reads.

The Save Puvungna Coalition, some of its members pictured here, was born out of the early 90s struggle to preserve the sacred land. (Image courtesy of Rebecca Robles)

Looking to the future

On California Native American Day 2019, one of the days when the soil dumping, the painful memories remain.

“The people who were at the site, they said that they were having trouble breathing,” Robles said of the impact of the soil dumping.

Robles noted that the heavy dirt disturbs the sacred site and that the university shouldn’t have had heavy trucks on Puvungna. Additionally, the plastic that was put down will eventually break down.

“When we’re out there, we don’t let people bring their cars on the site,” Robles said. “Even if they’re unloading things, we walk on the site.”

“In our culture, we talk about being responsible for the generations coming behind us, but we’re living it,” Robles said. “We’re using every tool that we have to protect our sacred site.”

Moving forward, Robles believes this could be a moment where a relationship of trust can be established with CSU officials.

“What I think is, that the Cal State University trustees can take this as an opportunity to heal some of the past wrongdoings against Native Americans,” Robles said. “And look toward the future, establish a relationship of trust and respect for the native peoples of California.”

A GoFundMe was started to help with legal fees, as of publication time it had raised $23,896 of the $50,000 goal.

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