In the latest development in the fight to preserve Puvungna, a letter was sent from the State of California’s Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) to California State University Chancellor Dr. Joseph I. Castro, defining the proper role of the Commission in the management of lands that are sacred to Indigenous Californians.
The letter, sent in late March by Justin Freeborn, attorney for the NAHC, claims that Chancellor Castro “mischaracterized” the Commission’s role in the dispute between local Tribal groups and California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) over the management of Puvungna.
Puvungna is a 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.
The university dumped soil and debris on Puvungna in 2019, which ultimately resulted in a lawsuit filed in October 2019 by The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes and the California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance.
According to Freeborn’s letter, the late March response from the enforcement attorney is one in a string of letters that started on March 5 when Matias Belardes, Chairman of Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes requested protection of the sacred site of Puvungna in a joint letter addressed to the chancellor.
See related: Forty CA groups sign letter to CSU Chancellor, trustees, and Gov. Newsom, calling to protect Puvungna, sacred Native American Site at CSULB
According to a press release, Chancellor Castro sent a response to Chairman Belardes, on March 11, where he acknowledged that “the campus relocated excavated soil to this site from a nearby student-housing project.”
In the letter Chancellor Castro stated that, “At the time, keeping the soil onsite was the preferred method of managing excavated earth based on counsel the campus received from its Committee on Native American Burial Remains and Cultural Patrimony.”
However, according to the press release, that committee was not empowered to consult the university on the matter.
“Chancellor Castro’s letter overlooks the fact that this committee was not empowered to consult with CSULB on this matter, as it is not connected to the Tribal governments who are required to be consulted by law before any changes are made to Puvungna,” the press release said.
Freeborn’s late March letter to the chancellor clarifies that the Commission’s role has only been to facilitate CSULB consultation with tribes and urges the CSU system and university to reach out to local tribes.
“At no point did NAHC staff state that its involvement would take the place of tribal consultation, or that the NAHC would develop a plan with CSULB concerning the soils,” the letter said referring to meetings that took place with university representatives and Tribal members to “offer technical guidance on conducting tribal consultation.”
Additionally, the enforcement attorney’s letter noted that a statement made in Castro’s letter stating that CSULB is engaged in a process with the NAHC to develop a permanent plan for the “soil to better integrate it into the surrounding landscape and to introduce native plantings,” is incorrect and a “mischaracterization” of the NAHC’s role.
Freeborn noted that the Native American Heritage Commission cannot act as a stand-in for consultation with tribes and have not been empowered to do so by any tribe, urging the university to reach out to “culturally affiliated tribes that are affected by CSULB’s actions.”
“The NAHC strongly advises the California State University system and CSULB to reach out to the local tribes as soon as possible and engage in meaningful tribal consultation,” Freeborn’s letter says.
“I was pleased to see the Native American Heritage Commission was able to recognize the violations, as well as how similar this violent act was, in comparison to the 1993 lawsuit,” Joyce Perry, Tribal Manager and Cultural Resource Director of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes said.
“I’m one of the original plaintiffs with the [1990’s] lawsuit. So, this is just deja vu all over again,” Perry noted in an interview with the Signal Tribune.
Perry is referring to planned development to build a mini mall on Puvungna in the early ‘90s, which is also mentioned in Freeborn’s letter.
“During that time, CSULB used heavy machinery on Puvungna, fenced off a sacred garden on the site, and dumped construction material on the site,” the letter said.
“The similarities to present day actions are of great concern to the NAHC as the Commission has previously taken steps to protect the site against similar CSULB actions.”
“I’m really hoping the university will understand the importance of, […] honoring this place of worship,” Perry said. “And understand the need to preserve this in perpetuity either by donating the land to us, coming up with some sort of legally binding agreement that they will no longer abuse the space.”
Chairman Belardes said in the press release that it was reassuring to have the NAHC’s support.
“It’s reassuring to know the Native American Heritage Commission recognizes that laws were broken, and that local tribes need a legal remedy to secure protections for our sacred lands.”
Perry noted that she believes there can be an agreement on how to preserve and protect Puvungna.
“I cannot emphasize the importance of the university, of making sure they understand the facts and the law, and to sit down with us and work this out,” Perry said. “This isn’t rocket science. This can be resolved very easily. I’m sure that we can come to some sort of agreement on how to preserve and protect and respect the sacred site of Puvungna.”