Commentary | Time for Cal State System to Stop Violating Sacred Native American Land


Lissette Mendoza | Signal Tribune

The Go Beach sign at Cal State University Long Beach.

Last June, Governor Gavin Newsom took the bold step of owning up to California’s shameful history of “violence, maltreatment and neglect” against the Native American people who were the first to call California home.

Months after Governor Newsom made his pledge to provide redress for the genocide and ethnocide native peoples have suffered under Western rule, California State University – Long Beach (CSULB) officials blatantly violated the rights of our tribe by dumping large volumes of soil and debris onto a sacred site that has been a gathering place for indigenous peoples for centuries. Located on the CSULB campus, the 22-acre site known as Puvungna holds religious, cultural and historical significance for several tribes and native groups, including the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation. Puvungna is a historical Native American village and burial ground. It is an active site of religious worship for tribal members.

While we recognize CSULB’s leaders are facing unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19, we have faith the university can address multiple important issues simultaneously. Dumping on this land is deeply disrespectful to our people. As the university presumably would not dump debris or drive heavy equipment over a cemetery, it should not do so on or near land that holds the graves of our ancestors. The Puvungna village underlies the entire campus, most of which is now developed. Of the original 500 acres once occupied by the Acjachemen and Tongva nations, only these few acres remain in a natural state.

Despite months of negotiations, university leadership continues to slow-walk a correction to this issue. The campus tried to pave over Puvungna to build a parking lot and strip mall nearly three decades ago. In 1993, our tribal leaders and others whose ancestors practiced the Chinigchinich religion sued the university over its attempt to negate the site’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places in order to proceed with its construction plans. Although we won that lawsuit, we were not able to establish permanent site protections through the litigation.

Several months ago, after notifying CSULB of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and National Register of Historic Places violations and raising concerns over CSULB’s refusal to remove the debris it had dumped, we filed a lawsuit. If this debris is not removed, it could well be the first step in a process known as “site capping,” whereby a sacred site is covered with a layer of fill and then developed. We strenuously object to having our last remaining parcel of sacred land in the area paved over.

The time has come for all state agencies to follow the governor’s lead in not only making amends for past harms done, but also in avoiding future harm to indigenous peoples and lands that hold significant cultural value.

Even without the previous lawsuit to remind the university of its obligations, CEQA is clear that the university is required to consult with culturally affiliated tribal governments before taking any action that would undermine the integrity of this site. Our tribal government was not consulted before the university placed debris on this land as required by law. If we had been, our response to the proposed action would have been a clear and unequivocal, NO.

As a public institution funded by the tax dollars of Californians, CSULB should honor its legal and ethical obligations to the people who have called this land home since time immemorial. We call upon the university to take swift action to reverse the damage done to Puvungna and ensure the site remains protected and treated with respect in perpetuity.

Matias Belardes is Tribal Chairman and Dustin Murphey is a Tribal Councilman of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation.