Tribal leaders and advocates are urging California State University Long Beach officials to delay the university’s implementation of a soil treatment plan on Puvungna, which is expected to begin this week, citing concerns over causing further harm to the indigenous site.
The soil treatment plan has become yet another point of contention in a years-long saga involving local Native American tribes and CSULB. The current controversy dates back to 2019, when the university dumped dirt on Puvungna, a piece of land on the campus’s western side that is considered a sacred site by local tribes.
While university officials consider the plan to be a necessary step to stabilize the Puvungna land, tribal leaders claim that removing the dumped dirt is a critical goal, and the soil treatment plan would make that removal more difficult.
For local tribes, Puvungna is considered a sacred site of creation, and it’s used as a space for various ceremonies and spiritual gatherings. Numerous burials and important archaeological sites remain on Puvungna.
What led to this point
The university’s decision in 2019 to dump dirt from a nearby student housing project, without conducting prior consultation with affiliated tribal governments or obtaining authorization from the State Historic Preservation Office, sparked a legal battle between local tribes and the university.
In September 2021, a settlement agreement was reached, which Rebecca Robles, an Acjachemen elder and culture bearer, considered a victory.
The settlement prohibits the university from building on the site and dumping any other construction materials or debris, and it also stated that the land would go to a conservation easement within two years. The petitioners, the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation-Belardes and California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance, Inc., would work together to achieve the covenant.
Since then, efforts have been underway to preserve and restore Puvungna. Through the formation of the grassroots group Friends of Puvungna, which became a nonprofit last year, tribal leaders and advocates have been working to fundraise, hold clean-ups and apply for grants.
Soil treatment vs. removal
To Robles, there is no question that the soil must be removed—testing of the soil indicated potentially hazardous levels of arsenic, plus, according to the State Historic Preservation Office, the weight of the soil was damaging the archaeological site—but it was a matter of finding the funding to do so, she said.
According to Robles, local tribes were not notified of the upcoming plans until receiving an email on April 6, despite having biweekly meetings with university officials regarding Puvungna.
“We were somewhat blindsided by this treatment plan,” Robles said. “We don’t really understand why the university is doing this at this time.”
According to Jeff Cook, a spokesperson for the university, the “long-planned implementation of the treatment plan” is in accordance with the settlement agreement reached in September 2021 and memorialized in a Notice of Exemption filed at the time, and it will be conducted under the supervision of Native American monitors and archeologists.
Permitted activities on the “Restricted Parcel” include necessary landscape maintenance and shaping of soils stores on the site in and prior to 2019 to “stabilize and blend them into the existing landscape,” Cook said in an email.
“The University continues efforts to identify a long-term conservation easement manager and remains committed to the perpetual protection of Puvungna,” said Cook.
According to an online petition, the university’s remediation plan was negotiated with the State Historic Preservation Office, but without a supplemental Environmental Impact Report, and it’s expected to include “feathering” out of the soil, which would make removal of the soil more difficult, further damaging Puvungna.
“We want to remove it, they want to hide it and cover it,” said Michelle Castillo, an Acjachemem tribal descendent and vice president of Friends of Puvungna.
What local tribes want
The petition requests a one-year delay of the university’s treatment plan, allowing for enough time and resources to carefully remove the soil. According to the university website, the treatment plan will commence on April 18, although Castillo said she believed that the setting of the soil is not expected to begin until April 25.
“(The settlement) was one of our wins, and so to lose that, or to potentially lose, that is very disheartening,” Robles said. “It also seems like the university is sugarcoating it, you know, and not really taking responsibility for the actions that they’ve caused for the disharmony in the Native American community and the further disruption to the land, to a very important sacred site.”
Robles said she had hoped that the soil removal would be taken care of this fall, when the conservation easement will go into a land trust, based on the settlement agreement.
“It’s the most beautiful time of the year, it’s spring … It’s a beautiful meadow,” Robles said, noting that even aside from other impacts the soil treatment plan would have, the current timing is not ideal. “We feel like this is a very damaging time to do it, that it would be less damaging to do it at the end of the summer.”
Robles hopes that the land will go to a Native American land trust, and that through restoring Puvungna, it will allow for the healing of both Native American communities and of the university. In addition, Robles hopes that the university will begin to truly understand the importance of Puvungna to Native communities, she said.
Robles envisions a Puvungna that, with the help Native communities and allies, will someday grow into a “beautiful garden,” serving as a place for ceremonies and for people to pray and learn about the struggles that Native communities have gone through to establish a restored sacred site, she said.
“I don’t think that people realize how important it is to the Native American people,” Robles said. “It’s something very precious. … It’s our history, but it’s California’s history, and it’s American history. A developer wouldn’t do this to a Civil War battlefield. And so there’s a certain tinge of unfairness and not acknowledging Native American history.”
A history of loss
There has already been much loss of California cultural sites, Robles said.
“It’s like California Indians are almost invisible,” she said. “To see all of this going on is heartbreaking.”
While the entire university campus is built on Puvungna, which has served as a ceremonial center for thousands of years, and is recognized as a sacred site by the Tongvas, Acjachemans and other Southern California tribes, the remaining 22 acres of undeveloped land are used to this day for ceremonies and spiritual gatherings. In 1974, the land was listed on the California State and National Registers of Historical Places, which protects the site from “arbitrary destruction.”
Despite the existing protections, Castillo pointed to four different sites across Puvungna where the university had dumped debris throughout 2019. In the fall and winter, PVC can even be seen poking out, said Castillo. A visible hill stretching along the border of Puvungna is made entirely of contaminated soil, she said.
According to Castillo, the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden as well as the nearby parking lot had been built without consulting with local tribes, infringing on the protected 22 acres.
Castillo estimated that about 3.5 of the 22 acres have been lost, and she noted that the conservation easement only protects about 10 to 12 out of the 22 acres.
Caretakers of the land
“We are caretakers, but we have to be caretakers on paper,” said Castillo.
About three times a month, Puvungna caretakers tend to the land, which can include cleaning and maintaining the site, preparing for ceremonies or ensuring that there is a walking path, particularly for elders. A couple of times a month, tribal members will walk around the site, dropping tobacco to strengthen their prayers and intentions.
“Our spirituality and our prayers and our ceremony are very important to us—we don’t have a church. This is our church,” Castillo said. “This is where we come to mourn, where we come to celebrate, and say goodbye to a season … It’s a beautiful site for us, but of course for developers and the university, they’re losing money every day.”
Throughout the year, Puvungna is a space for numerous ceremonies. This past January, over 200 people gathered at Puvungna for a 5K run/walk in honor of Puvungna and all sacred sites, Castillo said.
“There’s magic here, there’s history here, there’s tears here, blood,” Castillo said. “We’re fighting to preserve it, we’re fighting to keep it just like this, with the exception of a few changes.”