State commission launches investigation into CSULB’s treatment of Native American cultural site

Following a unanimous vote last week by a state commission charged with protecting Indigenous land, Cal State Long Beach will receive another layer of scrutiny on its controversial treatment of Puvungna, a Native American site on the campus that holds sacred significance for local tribes.

The current dispute over Puvungna has been ongoing since 2019 when the university dumped 6,400 cubic yards of construction dirt and debris from a student housing project on the 22-acre site.

In response, tribal groups protested and then sued, arguing that the university had violated the California Environmental Quality Act and that it was desecrating the land where their ancestors lived and were buried.

The California Native American Heritage Commission, which voted on July 30 to launch its investigation, also voted to assist in the ongoing lawsuit by writing an amicus brief in support of the tribal groups.

“We are aware of the Commission’s vote and will be reviewing an appropriate role for the campus,” Jeff Cook, CSULB spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

The Native American Heritage Commission is a governor-appointed state body with a mandate to catalog and protect Native American cultural resources.

According to the commission’s code, it has the authority to “prevent severe and irreparable damage” to Indigenous sites. Launching a formal investigation is the beginning of that process. After a public hearing, the commission can “recommend mitigation measures” to the university. If the university fails to accept the mitigation measures, and if the commission finds that a proposed action at Puvungna would be damaging, the commission may ask the attorney general to take “appropriate legal action.”

“I believe this is firmly within our authority, and it’s the right thing to do,” commission member Merri Lopez-Keifer said during the vote. The exact timeline between the investigation’s start and any public hearing is unclear.

CSULB has repeatedly said it does not have plans to develop the Puvungna site. In a January video statement, CSULB President Jane Close Conoley said that the university intends to “ensure a permanent plan” for the soil it moved to the site “in terms of better integrating it into the surrounding landscape and introducing native plantings.”

“In fact, as we move further into the process of creating a ten-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.

However, leading up to last week’s vote, the commission had accused CSULB of misstating and misrepresenting the commission’s position and role in facilitating the communication between the university and tribal groups who have objected to the university’s treatment of Puvungna.

The commission is siding with the suing party, Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes and the California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance, Inc., which argues that the university did not conduct proper tribal consultation before its construction activities.

The commission first proposed opening its formal investigation into the university in February but did not have enough members present to vote. Weeks later, the commission postponed ​its vote due to a lack of research. Now, with the wheels in motion, proponents of the lawsuit hope it could help further protect the site.

“It’s a positive thing for the preservation of the site,” said Acjachemen cultural bearer Rebecca Robles, who’s been advocating for the sacred site’s protection for years.

The commission did not respond to a request for comment.

Robles said that the commission will be investigating if there are any additional legal codes that the university may have violated on top of the California Environmental Quality Act. It is unclear if the findings of the commission’s investigation will be used in the amicus brief or when both activities will be completed.

Patrick Woolsey, an attorney co-representing the plaintiffs, said in an email that his team and the university have agreed to extend the briefing schedule for the lawsuit. CSULB’s opposition brief is now due Aug. 30, and the plaintiffs’ reply brief is due Sept. 27. A hearing is set for Jan. 13, 2022.

All of CSULB was built on land tribes considered to be part of Puvungna, which was a village, place of creation and burial site for the Indigenous people who lived there. Now, Indigenous nations say they use the remaining 22 acres of undeveloped land along Bellflower Boulevard for ceremonies and spiritual gatherings.

Dumping of construction dirt on Native American site sparks protests at CSULB

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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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