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The history of CSULB building on sacred Indigenous land

ABC News

Puvungna is an ancient village sacred to the Tongva and Acjachemen Native tribes of California. The site is referred to as the place of emergence—meaning it is where the world and life began in Tongva mythology. Puvungna is the birthplace of the Tongva God, Chingishnish, and where the funeral for the Creator-God Wyot was held. Gabrielino-Tongva tribal secretary Kimberly Morales Johnson said "If you were a Christian, you would probably equate it with the birthplace of Jesus Christ," when explaining Puvungna’s significance to the Indigenous people of Southern California.

The land where Puvungna once stood is now occupied by Cal State Long Beach (CSULB). This has created decades of tension between local tribes and the university. Since the 1970s, more than a dozen archaeological sites on the CSULB campus have been identified as Puvungna village sites, but most of them have been destroyed by campus development. In 1972, campus workers found evidence of Native American burials on campus, and the university collected the remains for their archeological lab. This evidence solidified the importance of Puvungna to the Tongva and Acjachemen tribes, and it was soon placed on the National Register of Historic Sites. Despite this order of preservation, CSULB continues to refer to Puvungna as “undeveloped university property.” Even with the location designated as a sacred historical site, CSULB continued to encroach on Puvungna land. By the 1990s, the university had built a Japanese Garden, a 4-acre parking lot, an International Student House, and an expansion of Earl Warren Drive on the borders of Puvungna.

In 1992, the university announced plans to build a temporary parking lot near the Puvungna area that would replace the Organic Gardens.

In order to finalize the plans, CSULB officials were required to file a Negative Declaration proving that there were no cultural resources on the land. In an attempt to conceal the federally protected status of Puvungna, campus officials argued that the site where they had planned to build the parking lot was not actually sacred Puvungna land. The university called for a "cultural review" of the land to contest the site’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Indigenous leaders were livid that CSULB was planning an archaeological excavation that would involve digging 20 meter long trenches throughout the entire site. To retaliate, Indigenous communities in Long Beach organized sit-ins and prayer vigils to protect the land. Campus officials clashed with Indigenous protesters, ordering them to leave the location, and threatening to arrest those who refused to comply. The ordeal garnered the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped local Indigenous tribes file a lawsuit against CSULB. Raleigh Levine of the ACLU made a statement regarding the case saying, "This case is about the First Amendment rights of the Native Americans to whom Puvungna is sacred. They have the right to freely exercise their beliefs without the state stepping in to pave over their place of worship and put a mini-mall on it." CSULB eventually lost the case, but this would not be the last lawsuit filed against the university for their sacrilege of Puvungna.

Members of the Save Puvungna Coalition circa 1993 I by Anna Christensen.

In October of 2019, the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, and the California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance banded together to file a lawsuit against CSULB for their actions in 2019. In the fall of that year, the university fell under scrutiny for using Puvungna as a dumpsite for trash and debris from nearby construction sites. As if using the Indigenous holy land as a trashcan wasn't bad enough, the CSULB administration added fuel to the fire by announcing plans to extend the existing parking lot further into Puvungna. In the lawsuit, the Juaneño Band demanded that the university remove the dumped soil from the site, but the two sides failed to reach an agreement. CSULB offered a settlement that ensured Puvungna would be protected for the next 10 years, but local Native tribes have insisted that the campus acknowledge Puvungna as sacred land and protect it indefinitely. The Friends of Puvungna, an organization led by Indigenous leaders in Long Beach, have created their own set of demands for CSULB. Like the Juaneño Band, they want the university to clean up construction debris and preserve Puvungna long term. In addition, the organization has been pushing the campus administration to hire an Indigenous plant specialist to restore what the CSULB has damaged.

While the lawsuit continues, Puvungna is alive and well, remaining an active location for tribal meetings, spiritual ceremonies, and events even through the pandemic. Recently, local tribes have been pushing to hold a semi-virtual version of the annual Tongva/Acjachemen Ancestor Walk. The Indigenous tribes of Southern California consider the Ancestor Walk a pilgrimage of sorts. Natives from all over gather to pray and honor the spirits of their ancestors. Community gatherings, both virtual and on Puvungna’s terrain, are what motivate the Indigenous people of Long Beach to keep fighting against CSULB and their incessant disrespect of Tongva and Acjachemen holy land.

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