Tribal leaders, CSULB reach settlement over Puvungna, sacred indigenous land

Tribal leaders and Cal State Long Beach have reached a settlement agreement over a sacred indigenous site on the East Long Beach campus, ending nearly two years of contentious litigation.

Tribal groups sued the university in October 2019 after the campus dumped construction soil from a housing development on the site of Puvungna, a site that has significant spiritual importance for the Native American tribes.

“This is a new era,” said Joyce Stanfield Perry, tribal manager and cultural resource director for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, who has been an activist for Puvungna preservation for the past 30 years.

“It’s time to heal,” she said.

The settlement will prohibit the university from constructing temporary or permanent structures or improvements, dumping construction debris or materials, installing landscaping other than certain native plants; applying pesticides to the land, storing or staging construction equipment, parking or driving vehicles on the land, operating heavy machinery and installing improvements that restrict or prohibit California Native American Tribes and affiliated groups from using the land for cultural, ceremonial or religious purposes.

The petitioners, Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes, and California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance, Inc., would enforce the covenant, according to the settlement agreement.

In 2019, CSULB dumped construction dirt and debris from a student housing project onto Puvungna, which triggered protests and a lawsuit against the university. The treatment of the land also drew scrutiny from a state heritage commission and a state conservation office.

In response, tribal leaders in support of the lawsuit against that university sought legal protections for Puvungna, a 22-acre piece of undeveloped land at CSULB.

CSULB had also faced criticism over the rumors that the university planned to build a parking structure on the sacred site. In a video statement in January, CSULB President Jane Close Conoley had denied those rumors, adding that there were “no plans in place for a structure of any kind on that land.”

The covenant still allows maintenance such as trash removal, landscaping maintenance, and removal of dead or dying trees, maintaining utilities; and acts to protect public health and safety (such as responding to a brush fire).

Petitioner attorney Winter King said the agreement will also require the California State University system to use its “best efforts” to establish a conservation easement in the next two years. The conservation easement would shift care of the land to a property manager, likely a third party, which will be chosen by the petitioners, King said.

This manager “shall have appropriate qualifications and experience to acquire and hold a conservation easement for tribal and historic purposes,” and will oversee long-term maintenance and a management plan for Puvungna, the settlement stated.

Immediate next steps in this process include preparing the legal description of the Puvungna within 20 days of the declaration, which was filed on Monday, and the county document recording of the covenant within 10 days of the approval of the of the legal description, according to the settlement.

“We are pleased with the settlement agreement as it is consistent with our stated interest and intent to protect this land from development,” said CSULB spokesman Jeff Cook in an email.

King said that the common goal of all parties to give Puvungna permanent protection and proper oversight.

“Nothing can go wrong,” she said about the settlement. “It’s air-tight.”

For now, Stanfield Perry dubs the settlement as a “precedent-setting moment.”

“I feel a great sense of relief and a great sense of pride that we have now laid another cornerstone for the future descendants to have pride and connect to this place that we call home,” Stanfield Perry said.

As trial approaches, tribal leaders say they want legal protections for Puvungna, not promises

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Crystal Niebla is the West Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of her grant-funded position with the Post. If you want to support Crystal's work, you can donate to her Report For America position at lbpost.com/support.
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