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CA Native American Heritage Commission calls out CSULB for failing to consult with tribal governments over fate of Puvungna, sacred lands located on campus

Governor Appointed Commission Sends Pointed Letter to CSU Chancellor Asserting Improper Consultation Practices with Local Tribes


March 26, 2021

Long Beach, Calif. – An enforcement attorney with the State of California’s Native American Heritage Commission sent a pointed letter to Dr. Joseph I. Castro, California State University Chancellor, on March 23, 2021 regarding the proper role of the Commission in the management of lands that are sacred to indigenous Californians. The letter notes that Chancellor Castro “mischaracterize[d]” the Commission’s role in an ongoing dispute between Southern California-based Tribal groups and California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) over the management of a 22-acre site known as Puvungna located within the CSULB campus.

Puvungna holds religious, cultural and historical significance for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians - Acjachemen Nation, as well as several other Tribal Nations. The Puvungna village site underlies the entire CSULB campus and the 22-acres are the last remaining undeveloped witness area of the ancient Native American village, burial ground and birthplace of the Chinigchinich religion. It continues to be an active site of religious worship for California Native Americans.

CSULB dumped soil and debris on this land in 2019. In a recent letter sent from Chancellor Castro to Matias Belardes, Chairman of Juaneño Band of Mission Indians - Acjachemen Nation, the Chancellor acknowledged that, “the campus relocated excavated soil to this site from a nearby student-housing project.” He went on to claim that, “At the time, keeping the soil onsite was the preferred method of managing excavated earth based on counsel the campus received from its Committee on Native American Burial Remains and Cultural Patrimony.” Chancellor Castro’s letter overlooks the fact that this committee was not empowered to consult with CSULB on this matter, as it is not connected to the Tribal governments who are required to be consulted by law before any changes are made to Puvungna.

The March 23 letter from the Commission’s attorney points out that the Commission’s role has been only to facilitate CSULB consultation with the relevant Tribes. Mr. Freeborn’s letter objects to the fact that Chancellor Castro’s letter “insinuates that the NAHC supports a plan to keep the soil [that CSULB dumped on Puvungna] in place.” Mr. Freeborn vehemently denies that consultation with the Commission would be an appropriate proxy for consultation with the Tribal governments that have connection to Puvungna. He adds, “the NAHC strongly advises the California State University system and CSULB to reach out to the local tribes as soon as possible and engage in meaningful tribal consultation.”

The Commission’s letter goes on to highlight the problematic connection between CSULB’s recent decision to dump soil contaminated with construction debris on Puvungna and an effort in the 1990s by CSULB to develop this sacred parcel of land as a parking lot and a mini mall. Mr. Freeborn further clarified, “CSULB's actions here appear substantially similar in nature to what occurred in the early 1990s leading to the previous lawsuit between NAHC and CSULB concerning this site…. The similarities to present day actions are of great concern to the NAHC as the Commission has previously taken steps to protect the site against similar CSULB actions. Lastly, the misrepresentations in your letter make it extremely challenging for the NAHC to continue efforts to facilitate meaningful tribal consultation or further problem-solving discussions between the parties - something that appears an ancillary benefit to CSULB.”

In closing, the letter from the Native American Heritage Commission to Chancellor Castro urges CSU to “reach out to the culturally affiliated tribes that are affected by CSULB 's actions. The NAHC cannot act as a proxy for consultation with tribes, and we have not been empowered to do so by any tribe.”

Culturally affiliated Tribes, including the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians - Acjachemen Nation, have petitioned CSULB leadership for formal consultation and reassurances that the university will take legally enforceable steps to ensure its ongoing protection from development. After failing to secure an appropriate response from CSULB leadership, the Tribe filed a lawsuit against California State University to ensure it follows the law with regard to consulting Tribal governments before disrupting sacred lands.

“It’s reassuring to know the Native American Heritage Commission recognizes that laws were broken, and that local tribes need a legal remedy to secure protections for our sacred lands,” said Matias Belardes, Chairman of Juaneño Band of Mission Indians - Acjachemen Nation. “It is reassuring to have the Native American Heritage Commission’s support.”

About the California Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC)

The Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC or Commission), created in statute in 1976 (Chapter 1332, Statutes of 1976), is a nine-member body whose members are appointed by the Governor. The NAHC identifies, catalogs, and protects Native American cultural resources -- ancient places of special religious or social significance to Native Americans and known ancient graves and cemeteries of Native Americans on private and public lands in California. The NAHC is also charged with ensuring California Native American tribes’ accessibility to ancient Native American cultural resources on public lands, overseeing the treatment and disposition of inadvertently discovered Native American human remains and burial items, and administering the California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (CalNAGPRA), among many other powers and duties.


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