Litigation to protect Puvungna continues, opening brief filed in early March

In’yoni Felix of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, performs a traditional jingle dance on Puvungna on Sunday, Feb. 14. Photo by Lissette Mendoza

The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes and the California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance filed an opening brief in their lawsuit against California State University, Long Beach on March 12, it was announced at a virtual press event on Monday.

An opening brief is the legal and factual arguments showing why and how the university violated the law with the dumping on Puvungna, according to Winter King, the attorney for the petitioners.

The groups, who filed the lawsuit in October 2019, contend that Cal State Long Beach violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it dumped 6,400 cubic yards of construction dirt and debris at Puvungna without conducting an environmental review. 

Mounds of debris dumped by Cal State University Long Beach appear a stark contrast to the greenery of Puvungna. The debris was dumped in 2019 and the University has yet to remove it. Photo by Lissette Mendoza

The university has until April 30 to file an opposition brief and the trial is scheduled to take place in June.

Read more: Inside the struggle to preserve Puvungna

Puvungna, a 22-acre parcel of land at CSULB, 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. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and on the California Native American Heritage Commission’s Sacred Land Inventory. 

“We feel that Long Beach broke the laws that protect that site from desecration and development,” Chairman of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes, Matias Belardes said at the event.

“We feel that by the dumping of dirt on there it’s just been a precursor for ultimate development so therefore we brought the lawsuit that we’re speaking of here today.”

The Chairman said in his statement that what the groups are asking for with the lawsuit is to enter into an agreement between the governing bodies, the Tribe and the university so the issue doesn’t come up again in the future.

“Ultimately that they realize […] that we’re not going to go away, we’re going to be here to protect it. Through this agreement we can work together and move forward with a good relationship,” he said.

The Tribal group is asking for the university to remove the construction dirt and debris, restore the site to its previous state and enter into the legally-binding agreement to permanently protect Puvungna, according to a subsequent press release.

Acjachemen Tribal Culture Bearer Rebecca Robles said in a statement at the event that the university has a legal responsibility and cultural responsibility to protect Puvungna. 

“They can end this controversy today,” Robles said. “Their actions are not in keeping with a modern movement of reconciliation. The university as representatives of the state can fulfill its obligation to our people by entering into a legally binding agreement that restores and permanently protects Puvungna for the Acjachemen, the Tongva and the Tribal people of the state.”

“They can end this controversy today,” Robles said. “Their actions are not in keeping with a modern movement of reconciliation. The university as representatives of the state can fulfill its obligation to our people by entering into a legally binding agreement that restores and permanently protects Puvungna for the Acjachemen, the Tongva and the Tribal people of the state.”

Rebecca Robles, Culture Bearer

Chairman Belardes spoke of the importance of preserving Puvungna. 

“My brother and I were brought to Puvungna by my father, David Belardes, many years ago as children,” he said. “We were told about the importance of that particular site, most notably because it is the birthplace of our God, Chinigchinich.”

Chairman of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes, Matias Belardes spoke of the importance of preserving Puvungna at the press event. He detailed how in the ’90s, he and his brother had been part of a different lawsuit over planned development for a strip mall on the sacred site. (Image via Zoom.)

Chairman Belardes pointed out some of the parallels happening almost 30 years later, having been part of the lawsuit that took place in the ‘90’s over planned development for a strip mall on the sacred site.

“As a family we decided that my brother and I would enter into the lawsuit basically to give the younger generation a voice in the lawsuit,” he said of the effort to Protect Puvungna in the ‘90s. “30 years later, we’re back at it again with the same discussion of development on that last piece of property.”

Also involved in the struggle to preserve Puvungna in the ‘90s was Lillian Robles, mother of Rebecca Robles, who has been one of the voices at the forefront of the preservation of Puvungna.

“My mother passed away in 2000, in her honor we’ve continued her work of preservation of sacred sites,” Robles said. “My mother taught me that these sites are the repository for our culture, that it is imperative for us to go back, to have a place to go back to remember who we are as human beings, who we are as Tribal people and who we are as a community.”

In a Feb. 13 video posted to Twitter, University President Jane Close Conoley gave a statement about Puvungna, making no mention of the litigation.

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

“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,” Conoley said. “Native-American site monitors and an archeologist were present during this work.”

The groups suing the university however claim that the university did not consult the Tribe before the dumping of debris “to avoid adverse impacts to the site,” according to the press release. 

In her video statement, the university president also mentioned that there were no plans in place for any structure on the land.

“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,” Conoley said.

Tribal Manager and Cultural Resource Director Joyce Stanfield Perry said that people should not be confused by posts or videos, instead legal actions speak louder than words and spoke to the need of a legally binding agreement.

“Videos and social media posts do not give us any legal protection,” she said. “It is unfortunate that the university is unwilling to put in writing what their intentions are for the land.”

“Videos and social media posts do not give us any legal protection, it is unfortunate that the university is unwilling to put in writing what their intentions are for the land.”

Joyce Stanfield Perry, Tribal Manager and Cultural Resource Director

On March 5, forty groups from around the state signed a letter to Cal State Trustees and Gov. Gavin Newsom calling to protect Puvungna. 

Read more: Forty CA groups sign letter to CSU Chancellor, trustees, and Gov. Newsom, calling to protect Puvungna, sacred Native American Site at CSULB

During the Q&A portion of the press event, Stanfield Perry and Robles stated that to the best of their knowledge the Tribe had not heard a response from either party, as of press time.

“Puvungna continues to be very very important to the Acjachemen people and to the community at large,” Robles said. “We have a connection with this land as Tribal people, as Californians and we feel that it is our responsibility to protect it, to take care of it for future generations.”

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