Opinion: Native American sacred land on CSU Long Beach campus should be permanently protected

CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

The following is a guest commentary submitted to Calmatters by Matias Belardes, chairman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

Last summer Gov. Gavin Newsom apologized to Native Americans on behalf of the state of California for historical wrongdoings and promised to work collaboratively with Native peoples to begin the healing process. Our governor now has a golden opportunity to demonstrate his sincerity.

Puvungna, a 22-acre parcel of land on the California State University, Long Beach campus, is the last remaining undeveloped sacred Native American land in the region. CSU Long Beach has repeatedly tried to co-opt this land over the years and has generally treated it as just a parcel of land waiting to be developed. Newsom and the CSU Board of Trustees – many of whom the governor appoints – can and must take action to permanently protect this land.

The controversy over Puvungna comes as there is growing recognition of the way our government and our society have systematically failed to respect and protect Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Puvungna, once a 500-acre prehistoric site, holds religious, cultural and historical significance to local tribes. The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation—Belardes, the Gabrielino/Tongva, and several other Native American groups—continue to hold ceremonies on this land throughout the year. Puvungna is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and on the California Native American Heritage Commission’s Sacred Lands Inventory. This land was a beautiful meadow dotted with native oak trees. Until recently, the spring carpet of wildflowers was a work of art.

But last fall, the university intentionally dumped large quantities of construction debris and dirt on our sacred land. CSU Long Beach has also sprayed the meadow with pesticides, killing many of the native flowers and grasses. In doing so, the university violated the basic rights of California’s native people, as well as state law AB 52, which requires CSU Long Beach to consult with specified tribal governments before taking actions that would undermine the integrity of this sacred land. My tribe was not consulted before the construction debris was placed on this land.

Several years ago, CSU Long Beach tried to build a strip mall on this land.

A parking lot already juts into our meadow, and now a huge mound of debris and dirt desecrates our ceremonial space.

We fear the university is attempting to “cap” the site, a process by which buried cultural resources are considered to be protected—thus opening the door to development. But it is the land itself that is the cultural resource. We cannot hold religious ceremonies in a strip mall parking lot or the lobby of a building.

My tribal government asks that, as a first step, the university clean up the construction debris, relocate the dumped soil and hire an indigenous plant specialist to restore the damaged habitat on Puvungna.

Furthermore, we ask CSU Long Beach to establish a memorandum of understanding that preserves this sacred land in perpetuity and improves consultation and communication between the university and the tribal governments culturally affiliated with Puvungna.

CSU’s Trustees should once and for all end the effort to appropriate this sacred land, and Newsom should follow through on his original commitment to honor the native peoples of California.

Granting permanent protection to Puvungna would send a powerful message, to CSU alums and to all Americans, that California respects Indigenous cultures. More than that, the trustees and governor need to understand that protecting this land would be a symbolic act of respect for all Native Americans’ tribal rights.

CSU trustees can take this opportunity to heal some of the past wrongdoings against Native Americans and look toward the future, establishing a relationship of trust and respect with the Native peoples of California.

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