Photos by Stephanie Rivera.
Marking California Native American Day, a handful of local Native American leaders and Cal State University officials gathered recently at Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) to officially recognize the recent reburial of tribal ancestors to the land they once inhabited. The reburials returned the bodies, which had been stored in a lab for many years, to the land.
“These ancestors have waited a long time to return to the earth,” said Committee on Native American Burial Remains Committee (NABRC) Chairman Louis Robles. “This wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation from so many different organizations and groups.”
The actual reburial of about 100 Tongva ancestors—originally believed to be 21—took place this July, following a long process that began when the remains and funerary items were excavated in the 1950s to make way for development plans. Robles said the remains were kept in boxes on campus.
“It’s our belief that if you are disturbed from your grave, you want to be reburied as close to where you taken from as possible,” Robles said. “With this being within proximity was really special because here in Southern California it is hard to rebury close to where they come from.”
Word of the reburial this year has already spread to other tribal groups, Robles said, which has given them hope for their similar struggles.
“These aren’t just dinosaurs that dropped and got covered; these are people who were laid to rest,” Robles said. “These people were laid to rest with their ceremonies and prayers and never meant to be disturbed.”
Cindi Alvitre, CSULB anthropology professor and member of the reburial committee, said they believe the remains are related to what is most likely the cemetery related to the Puvunga village site, which was once populated by the Tongva people.
“Unfortunately when science begins to collect, sometimes they forget who they collect,” Alvitre said. “These ancestors remain neglected since 1952 until very recently.”
Craig Stone, director of the American Indian Studies program at CSULB, thanked CSULB President Jane Close Conoley and CSU Chancellor Timothy White—who were present at the event—for their efforts in the reburial.
“For some of us, 1978 was the first time we met with a president who was receptive and helpful,” Stone told the crowd. “Other presidents have been helpful [but] it wasn’t until we met Jane Conoley, that we found a president who is really really helpful and supportive, and also the new Chancellor Timothy White.”
The reburial process was sped up following the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Stone said the NABRC was then formed and the struggle and in 1994 the ancestors were repatriated.
CSULB is one of the first universities under NAGPRA to return indigenous ancestors to campus reburial sites, according to Close Conoley.
“We’re really proud of that first,” Close Conoley said. “This site was chosen collaboratively between the university and tribal representatives and the project involved 11 different courses in colleges across campus.”
Close Conoley said their collaborative efforts have also inspired others to create a similar plan.
“Cindy [Alvitre] just told me there is a Thai student working with her because they have a similar problem in Thailand in terms of burial sites because of all the development going on,” Close Conoley said following the event. “She is studying to figure out if she can go home and create a NAGPRA model.”
While the event was joyous, but solemn, CSU Chancellor Timothy White said it served as a reminder of the struggles of the Native people and the importance to continue to respect and remember those who once lived on these lands.
“I hope these sorts of ceremonies around a specific issue with Native American communities can be generalized to all the issues we are facing in the cities across this country right now between communities of color, communities of poverty, communities for first generations,” White said. “There is something to learn from today in a much broader context of the struggles of our times.”