Throughout the history of the United States, the disenfranchisement of marginalized groups has been an all too familiar occurrence. This oppression can never be considered a thing of the past; it constantly proves itself to be a systemic cycle in dire need of reparations.
California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) hosts the sacred site Puvungna, most sacred to the Gabrielino-Tongva nation among other neighboring tribes. What once began as a 500-acre village is now 23 acres, accommodating campus and city developments. CSULB attempted to build a strip mall and shopping center on the site in 1992. After a successful lawsuit, Puvungna was able to prevent this. However, the victory was not fully felt due to a “temporary” parking lot that was built for the mall and remains to this day.
CSULB being a constant inhibitor to Puvungna’s growth is a reminder of the legacy of centuries worth of Euro-American colonization. Understanding Puvungna as an entity outside of its controversies is pertinent to the comprehension of its unique status as a sacred space.
As a 10,000-year-old creation site, Puvungna is rich in history and tradition. Despite this, CSULB’s President Jane Conoley has referred to it as “our undeveloped 22-acres” and the institution doesn’t even mention it in their online map. These blatantly disrespectful actions undermine Puvungna’s significance and display CSULB’s lack of consideration for preserving Puvungna’s honor.
In an interview with the New University, Rebecca Robles, member of the Acjachemen Nation and Culture Bearer for the United Coalition to Protect Panhe, described the deep sense of connection that Puvungna fosters.
“[O]ne of the core values of Native American people is that the land is seen not as just, like, ‘Oh, that’s worth a million dollars,’ or ‘Oh, it’s in the city of Long Beach.’ It’s seen as a living entity, as having a life force,” Robles said.
Puvungna being an ancestral burial site only heightens its spiritual presence, but this presence is also seen in Indigenous lands that aren’t burial sites, according to Robles. Additionally, Puvungna is revered and used by Native Americans from other states who no longer have access to their own sacred spaces. This emphasizes the importance of preserving the site’s unique allure to those outside of the Southern California region.
Robles’ mother, the late Acjachemen elder Lillian Robles, devoted the last fifteen years of her life to the preservation of Indigenous sites. She implemented the annual Ancestor Walk, hosted an around-the-clock spiritual vigil after CSULB bulldozed the Miller Japanese Garden and led many activist efforts to educate the community.
“My mother always said that the land was our repository for culture, that we could always go to the land and connect,” Robles said.
Puvungna cannot be utilized for its traditional, sacred purposes when CSULB consistently exploits their authority to take advantage of the site. They have consistently advanced their own agenda by overrunning Puvungna, which shows their disregard for the site and Native American culture.
In 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a formal apology to California Indians for the state’s dark history of genocide and “maltreatment toward Native Americans.” That same day, CSULB dumped 6,400 cubic yards of soil a quarter of a mile from Puvungna where they were building a dormitory building.
“We don’t even let people drive on the site because it’s delicate and it damages the land,” Robles stated.
Robles says that the disposed of soil was “questionably contaminated with arsenic” — with long-term exposure, this could lead to a variety of detrimental health conditions, including cancer and diabetes. CSULB’s reckless, inconsiderate decision brought an abundance of environmental and health concerns to Puvungna.
More recently, the university has attempted to implement the “Treatment Plan for Soils Placement on Campus.” This plan is harmful as it would “compact and feather out piled soils,” elevating soil density and runoff which prevents roots’ water intake. Further damaging Puvungna’s ecosystem is especially concerning because despite making up less than 5% of the world population, “Indigenous peoples protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity,” according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Friends for Puvungna — an Indigenous-led grassroots group — created a petition requesting CSULB to wait until August when the weather is drier and the plan wouldn’t affect spring fluorescence. Although it garnered over a thousand signatures, CSULB is ignoring the collective voice and still following through with their original plan.
“We’re out there daily, watching and making sure that no further damage is done to the site and that they’re adhering to what their treatment plan is,” Robles clarified.
Activists should not be responsible for surveilling the university to ensure they stay true to their word. An institution as prominent as CSULB should be held accountable for all their shortcomings, but the lack of repercussions they’ve faced for unjustly attempting to violate their agreement with Puvungna has shown that this is not the case.
It is only by acknowledging the injustices of the past that our society can work towards a hopeful, more equitable future. The Land Back movement is an inspiring example of this, as it advocates for an essential “transfer of decision-making power over land to Indigenous communities.”
Robles touched on how Land Back was able to return a one-acre site to the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe and the Sogorea Te Land Trust in Oakland is having acres returned to it as well.
“[T]he returning of land to Native Americans will make a difference in the way that we and the public looks at land, and in the way that we as Native Americans can care for [it],” Robles said.
One of Puvungna’s core efforts is to educate people about the past. Robles shared that they’ve aligned with CSULB’s geography classes to teach students about the land they reside on. Puvungna hosts many educational outreaches, such as permaculture and basket weaving classes and site cleanups.
“We can’t go back, we can only go forward,” Robles said.
Trista Lara is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.