State commission to consider opening investigation on CSULB tribal consultation over Puvungna

A state commission charged with protecting indigenous resources on Friday will consider opening an investigation into whether Cal State Long Beach has communicated in good faith with tribal groups about Puvungna, a sacred Native American site at the campus.

The California Native American Heritage Commission, a nine-member body appointed by the governor, has accused the university of misstating the commission’s position on the care of the site, and misrepresenting the commission’s role in facilitating talks between CSULB and local tribal groups.

While the commission’s agenda for Friday doesn’t provide details beyond listing a tribal request for a “Puvungna Investigation,” the commission previously wrote a letter saying the request was related to CSULB’s handling of the site.

“This means there is the potential the NAHC will be looking closely at the veracity of CSULBs actions, among other things,” the letter said. “It behooves CSULB to pay careful attention to this matter—understand the history of CSULB actions in the last 40-50 years and handle this matter in good faith.”

Tribal groups say the university has failed to communicate with them regarding the 22-acre Puvungna site, which tribes use for cultural gatherings and religious ceremonies. The tribes want assurances that the site—which they say has reverence for them comparable to Christianity’s veneration for the birthplace of Jesus Christ—will not be disturbed in the future.

Tribal groups have separately sued the university after construction debris was dumped at the site in 2019, though the university says it has worked to remedy this and is committed to working with tribal groups. A trial is expected to begin in June.

The most recent strife between the university and the commission includes a series of letters between the chancellor of the CSU system, Joseph Castro, tribal groups and a lawyer with the commission, Justin Freeborn.

In the most recent missive, Freeborn accused Castro of misstating the commission’s role in negotiations with tribal groups; the commission, he said, is a mere facilitator of talks between the groups, not a player in the discussions.

Freeborn also alleged Castro insinuated the commission supports the university’s plan to integrate sacred soil into the natural landscape and introduce native plantings to Puvungna after the construction materials were dumped there nearly two years ago.

A spokesman for the CSU conceded that the role of the commission was not framed as well as it could have been in Castro’s March 11 letter to one of the tribal groups involved in discussions.

“We did not intend to imply either the exclusion of other groups in these important conversations nor that NAHC would act as a proxy for consultation with tribes,” CSU spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said in an email. “We regret the misunderstanding.”

CSULB said it has had meaningful discussions with tribal groups and continues to do so, according to an earlier statement from spokesman Jeff Cook. A video posted in January by President Jane Close Conoley echoes those sentiments, and details the university’s plan to preserve the site.

Matias Belardes, chairman of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes, one of the suing parties, said that the university sought consultation from his tribe just a few weeks ago.

The consultation, Belardes said, means that the university sends them paperwork, including project plans and environmental impact reports, that his tribe must review before giving an official response. He said the review process could last 30 to 60 days.

“It’s kind of a weird situation,” he said, given that a trial is looming.

The commission will discuss opening an investigation at its meeting tomorrow from 9 to 4 p.m.

It’s not clear what kind of enforcement action the commission could bring to bear in this situation. State law allows it to request a court-issued injunction “to prevent damage to and insure Native American access to sacred sites,” according to the commission’s website.

Freeborn, the attorney representing the commission, could not be reached for comment.

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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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