As Cal State Long Beach was expected on Wednesday to begin work on a soil treatment plan at Puvungna, a sacred Native American site, several people gathered at the campus to protest the move.

The soil treatment plan follows a conflict that began between the university and local tribes in 2019, when CSULB dumped dirt from a nearby construction project on Puvungna, which is used for ceremonies and spiritual gatherings.

The entire university campus is built on Puvungna, which has served as a ceremonial center for thousands of years, and it’s recognized as a sacred site by the Tongva, Acjachemen and other Southern California tribes. The remaining 22 acres of undeveloped land was protected from “arbitrary destruction” in 1974, when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

CSULB’s decision to dump dirt on the site in 2019 sparked a legal battle, and in 2021, the university and the petitioners, the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, the Acjachemen Nation-Belardes and the California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance, Inc., reached a settlement that prohibited the university from building on the site and dumping any other construction materials or debris. The agreement also stated that the land would go to a conservation easement within two years.

Since then, local tribal leaders and advocates have focused on raising money to remove the soil, Rebecca Robles, an Acjachemen elder and culture bearer, told the Post in a previous interview.

Previous testing of the soil indicated potentially hazardous levels of arsenic, said Robles, who believes that the treatment plan, which is expected to include “feathering” of the soil, will make the tribes’ ultimate goal—removing the dirt—all the more difficult.

According to an online petition, which is urging the university to delay the treatment plan by one year, CSULB’s remediation plan was negotiated with the State Historic Preservation Office, but without a supplemental environmental impact report.

Local tribes were not notified of the upcoming plans until they received an email on April 6, despite having biweekly meetings with university officials regarding Puvungna, according to Robles.

A protester sits on the grass painting a sign.
Alyssa Bishop paints a sign during a protest against the soil treatment plan scheduled to begin on the Native American sacred site, Puvungna, on April 26, 2023. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

Jeff Cook, a spokesperson for the university, told the Post in an April 14 email that 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.

According to the university website, the plan was shared with all eight tribes on CSULB’s consultation list in 2021, and feedback was incorporated into the plan where feasible. “In 2022, the State Historic Preservation Officer and multiple tribes who chose to consult concurred with the university proceeding with this work,” the website reads. “Tribal representatives were provided detailed information on work that would proceed in April 2023.”

To Anna Christensen, the co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Los Cerritos Wetlands Taskforce (the wetlands are part of Puvungna, she said), the issue at hand is one of human rights and sovereignty.

“Consultation is not consent,” Christensen said.

The timing itself is also not ideal, considering it is springtime and plants and animals on the land are thriving, Christensen said.

“There’s residents here. They may not be human, but they live here,” Christensen said. “This treatment plan is not needed at this time—this is an assault on nature.”

Puvungna has served as a sacred site and burial ground for Native people, and it’s part of both United States’ and California’s history, said Mary LeFever, a retired high school teacher who joined Wednesday’s protest.

“We save these sites so that our future generations can know about them,” she said.

According to LeFever, the university has already begun mowing, and officials plan to implement an above-ground sprinkler system as well, prior to the feathering process.

When Perla Dionicio came to Puvungna to pray on Monday, seeing the work that had begun felt like “pouring salt on the wound,” she said.

“It was heartbreaking to see just everything cut down. You stand in the middle of Puvungna … the actual ceremony site, and seeing birds and butterflies and all these flowers, and then you walk across the rest of it, and it’s gone,” Dionicio said. She had been told on the same day that the university was “setting up the staging area” to begin work, she said.

Dionicio was initially introduced to Puvunga in the fall of 2020 by Michelle Castillo, vice president of Friends of Puvungna, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the land. Dionicio has been visiting Puvungna for ceremonies and to pray ever since.

“Through my own personal healing process, I have realized the importance of our connection to the land,” Dionicio said. “This is where we took human form, and so I do feel that deep connection.”

Through her experiences at Puvungna and through connecting to her own history, Dionicio has noticed the patterns of colonialism and capitalism playing out at the sacred site.

“This fight today has been the fight that our ancestors have fought over 500 years,” Dionicio said. “It was important for me to be here and show my solidarity for the Acjachemen nation and the Tongva people.”

“I feel like, in a perfect world, and a world that wasn’t driven by capitalism and colonialism, we would hope, or we could hope, that the university will do the right thing, and just preserve the land like they’re supposed to, and let the First Nations lead the way to that,” Dionicio said. “But we were expecting for that not to happen. So my whole ultimate hope for being here is to provide support and provide safety.”

Two protesters hold signs on the grass as cars drive by. A sign that says "Protect Puvungna" is visible between the protesters and the street.
Protesters stand in front of the Cal State Long Beach entrance on April 26, 2023 to protest the upcoming soil treatment plan, which advocates say will cause further damage to the sacred site. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

As a former CSULB student, Alyssa Bishop said it was important to advocate for the protection of Puvungna.

“This treatment plan is disrespectful, in the kindest way of speaking it,” Bishop said. “You can’t just put some flowers on top of toxic soil and wipe your hands clean as if there was no wrong done. It’s just a Band-Aid.”

“I don’t trust the university one bit,  I don’t believe that they’re going to do the right thing,” Bishop added. “I believe it has to be people power to force the right thing to take place.”

After today, Caroline Kaufmann, who has been coming to Puvungna to pray for the past 12 years, hopes that more people will understand both the need for protection of the land, as well as the movement to push for more transparency from the university, she said.

“The wellness of the people is predicated upon the wellness of the land, and vice versa … and land defense is self defense,” Kaufmann said. “I’m here for my family, and I’m here for the generations who are coming and for the ancestors who resisted colonization and the destruction of land on the ground.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the site’s historic status.