Puvungna Site Controversy Continues

Steve Propes

Long Beach State has been the site of constant change and alteration in recent decades, be it a growing student population or the planning and construction that accompanies that.

One of the more memorable  changes was when university officials decided to develop about 25 acres facing Bellflower Boulevard just north of Beach Drive for a strip mall in 1992. The first plan was to replace the Organic Gardens with a temporary parking lot.

During protests and before the parking lot could be built, the university filed a negative declaration as required by state environmental law, which alleged there were “no cultural resources” on the site.

As early as the 1960s the Tongva people have sought to preserve the Puvungna site from development. A dozen or more archaeological sites spread over an area of about 500 acres on and near the campus have been identified as Puvungna village sites. Most of these have been destroyed by development. In 1972, campus workmen uncovered portions of an Indian burial on one of these sites on the western edge of campus.

State officials and local Indians pointed out the site was not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1974 the university itself had posted a sign near the site which read: “Gabrielino Indians once inhabited this site, Puvungna, birthplace of Chungichnish, law-giver and god.”

Frustrated in their attempt to negate the National Register status of the site, campus officials began to argue that there was insufficient evidence to claim the site was actually Puvungna and announced a “cultural review” to determine through archaeological excavation whether the land was in fact sacred.

Indians pitched tents and began a prayer vigil to protect the site, while the university fenced off the area, ordering them off the site under threat of arrest. The Tongva people initiated protests and filed a lawsuit which stalled construction. The American Civil Liberties Union entered the case. The bill for these so-called “Indian Wars” was acknowledged by campus officials as over $2.3 million.

In 1995, CSULB President Robert C. Maxson ended the land use war when he abandoned all plans for commercial development and pledged to preserve the Puvungna site as open space as long as he was president.

On January 2006, Maxson left the presidency, replaced by F. King Alexander. The so-called “Maxson Truce” continued on until CSULB began a controversial Puvungna Study several years ago. The site remained as an undeveloped grassy area with a few trees. That all changed in September 2019.

On Friday, Sept. 27, the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of Parkside North Dormitories on Atherton yielded dirt intended for storage at the Puvungna site. Meanwhile, about 20 people gathered at Puvungna as dump trucks began arriving.

On Saturday, Sept. 28, a small group of indigenous people from local tribes held a protest about the dirt dumping from the Parkside North Dormitories construction site on 22-acres of the Puvungna lands. On the same day, another protest was held at the Iron Triangle corner of Bellflower and Seventh Street.

CSULB Vice Provost for Academic Planning Dhushy Sathianathan issued a statement on the Puvungna land controversy. “This area will be included in the university’s broader, inclusive planning process taking place over the next two years.” Redefining “dumping dirt” as “managing earth,” Sathianathan asserted, “This method of managing surplus earth is preferred for both financial and environmental considerations and is consistent with interest by some constituencies to keep excavated dirt from campus here on site.” The school stated the dirt is inspected before transport and at the site where it is being dumped.

Sathianathan said that there are no plans for permanent construction, but the temporary parking expansion would be a dirt lot, as opposed to it being paved. Since its founding in 1949, the school has had an ongoing parking problem. During the 1950s, student parking was on dirt lots, which often damaged cars when it rained. CSULB President Jane Close Conoley said a parking committee is considering adding 500 temporary parking spots on or near the Puvungna site. The suggestion has not been finalized.

Several attempts to reach a CSULB spokesperson for comment on the recent protests were unsuccessful.

In an open parking lot adjacent to the site during an Indian ceremony on Oct. 5, several young people said the original plan as proposed by the school was to have the dirt dumped down the hill to the north, but instead it was brought to a site adjoining Beach Drive, where a berm-sized amount of dirt has yet to be compacted. More recently, additional dirt was dumped further to the north.

According to longbeach4d.blogspot.com, “Based on more recent requests, we have modified where the dirt is being placed” according to a statement issued by Sathianathan.

In the online newsletter, Bear Tracks, Tahesha Knapp-Christensen reports CSULB told local tribal leaders that “this dumping that occurred over a two-week period was done by mistake on the part of a university administrator and that the university has officially apologized.”



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