The struggle to preserve sacred land of Puvungna continues, judge to hear case in June

Photo courtesy of Michelle Castillo

Over a year after construction trucks began dumping dirt and debris on Puvungna from a nearby construction site at Cal State University Long Beach, litigation against the university is ongoing.

Puvungna is a 22-acre parcel of land at CSULB that is 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.

See related: Inside the struggle to preserve Puvungna

Puvungna is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and registered as a sacred site with the California Native American Heritage Commission.

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

According to Acjachemen Tribal Culture Bearer Rebecca Robles, a judge will hear the case in June 2021.

CSULB’s Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications Jeff Cook said that it is not in the university’s practice to comment on pending litigation in a Dec. 2020 statement to the Signal Tribune, providing instead background information that had been shared on the university’s website.

Cook noted that 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.

In a Jan. 13 video posted to Twitter by the university, President Jane Close Conoley spoke about Puvungna and the dumping but made no mention of the ongoing litigation.

“At that time, keeping soil from campus here on site was the preferable method of managing excavated earth based on counsel we received from our campus Committee on Native American Burial Remains and Cultural Patrimony. Native-American site monitors and an archeologist were present during this work.”

Joyce Perry, Tribal Cultural Resource director, told the Signal Tribune in 2020 that the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians-Acjachemen Nation-Belardes were not consulted.

Winter King, the attorney for the tribe and CCRPA said to the Signal Tribune in late 2020 that this was a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenge.

“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.

King added that 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.”

Additionally, a motion to get an injunction to prevent further dumping on Puvungna was also filed but ultimately wasn’t heard by the court since the university agreed to stop dumping soil until the litigation was resolved, according to King.

Robles noted that there’s concern over what was described as hardened soil at Puvungna and plastic that was placed on the site that is now degrading.

In the Twitter video Conoley stated that “any minimal construction debris inadvertently included in the relocated soil was incidental and was removed.”

However, one of the demands from the tribe and community leaders includes the removal of the debris.

Conoley also addressed whether a parking lot or other buildings would be built on Puvungna.

“There are no plans in place for a structure of any kind on that land,” she said. “In fact, as we move further into the process of creating a 10-year physical master plan for our campus the undeveloped portions of this area of campus will be held in reserve, with no building plans noted at all.”

The university president said that CSULB has been engaged in a process with the Native American Heritage Commission, State Historic Preservation Officer and other interested parties “to ensure a permanent plan for the soil in terms of better integrating it into the surrounding landscape and introducing native plantings.”

A document sent to the Signal Tribune in Nov. 2020 notes that the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation – Belardes wants the university to “execute a treatment plan” that would restore the site to the way it was before the dumping.

Another request from the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation – Belardes, and community leaders is for the university to outline a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in order to avoid any conflicts over the site in the future.

Image courtesy of Michelle Castillo

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

Among the list of commitments the tribe and community leaders want the university to agree to according to the document are:

• 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.

The efforts to preserve Puvungna have been widely reported by other local outlets such as the Daily Forty-Niner, Forthe and Long Beach City College’s Viking News.

A GoFundMe to Protect Puvungna was started to help with legal fees, as of publication time it had raised $26,445 of its $50,000 goal.

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