Puvungna: A modern-day “genocide” on Native American history

By Tristan Maglunog
May 4, 2021

LONG BEACH, CA- Southern California Native Americans are facing yet again another form of cultural destruction and elimination of history with the controversy of a sacred ground known as Puvungna. 

Located on the campus of California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), the 22-acre site holds historical significance to the local Gabrielino, Tongva, and Acjachemen tribes. Puvungna, which means “The Gathering Place,” is an active ceremonial site and recognized as a creation site for the Native Americans, a history spanning over 10,000 years. The site has a history of being threatened by modernization. In 1993, CSULB attempted to build a strip mall on Puvungna. However, the plans were thwarted when the efforts of the Native tribes had successfully sued the university, preventing further development.

But in September 2019, CSULB dumped dirt and construction debris onto Puvungna unannounced, prompting the Native Americans to take action once again. Rebecca Robles, an Acjachemen tribal elder, condemns the university’s activities.

“We feel that that’s damaging to the site, and so we’re actively seeking to remedy that and work with the university to come up with a solution that will protect the site into perpetuity,” said Robles.

Robles, who also is the organizer for the grassroots movement, Friends of Puvungna, has arranged many different events and gatherings, encouraging support and spreading awareness to protect the sacred site. As the daughter of Lillian Robles, who was the elder leading the movement against the university in the 90s, Rebecca is now leading the present-day efforts to preserve Puvungna. Co-director of the Friends of Puvungna, Michelle Castillo, stresses the importance of the dumping situation.

“The problem with staying silent on something like this, there’s too much to lose,” said Castillo. “Keeping silent wasn’t an option…not for a lot of the elders.” 

“It’s erasure of our existence.”

Michelle Castillo, Co-Director, Friends of Puvungna

To let their voices be heard, the Acjachemen Nation had filed a lawsuit against CSULB in October 2019, which immediately brought the dumping to a halt. The university violated California Public Resources Code 21080.3.1, which requires consultation with tribes before taking action that threatens cultural integrity. Because the university failed to consult tribal representatives, the actions devalue Native American history.

“It’s modern-day genocide, that’s exactly what it is, and it’s erasure of our existence,” said Castillo.

Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the lawsuit has been halted but has since re-opened for a trial set for June 2021. While CSULB officials cannot comment on the litigation, in a statement offered by President Jane Close Conoley, the university explained the dumping of soil onto Puvungna.

“At that time, keeping soil from campus here on site was the preferable method of managing excavated earth based on counsel we received from our campus Committee on Native American Burial Remains and Cultural Patrimony,” said Conoley.

The Puvungna Experience.

This is not the first time a threat to Native American history has affected the Gabrielino/Tongva and Acjachemen tribes. In 2015, Pope Francis canonized Fr. Junipero Serra as a saint, which sparked outrage among the Native Americans. Because of Serra’s ambition to spread Christianity through the mission system, the indigenous people were subject to his assimilation. Efforts to topple and vandalize Fr. Serra statues throughout California in response to his canonization have forced removing the statues from public view. In a statement from President Rudy Ortega Jr. of the neighboring Tataviam tribe, Serra’s influence brought lasting cultural destruction to their ancestors. His canonization disregards the faults committed by the Catholic Church.

“Today, especially here in the U.S., we have some freedom of religion, our own free will to choose where we wish to worship God and how,” said Ortega Jr. “The Pope should have never made Serra a saint out of respect for the native people and especially for those who are in your Church.”

Fr. Ray Smith, an associate pastor for Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, where its statue of Serra was vandalized in 2017, acknowledges the fractured relationship between Native Americans and the Church. The mission is working on a project to give them a dedicated space to tell their story.

“I’ve done many anointings for the tribe, and I think a piece of my life is to offer compassionate acceptance for them, and that’s the door I leave open,” said Smith.

Fr. Ray Smith speaks on the historical controversy regarding the Junipero Serra and the Native Americans.

The call for healing comes full circle to the present-day situation in Puvungna. Despite the tensions fueled with CSULB, the Native Americans acknowledge that the university is a member of their community, and it is vital to reach closure. 

“A 10,000-year old sacred site is something worth saving for the people of California.”

Rebecca Robles, Acjachemen Tribal Elder

“We see this as a time to remedy the past, to move forward, to establish a permanent settlement and restore the land,” said Robles.

CSULB President Conoley, in her statement, ensures that Puvungna will be helped in reserve, as the university holds honor and respect for the site.

“Honoring our First Peoples is part of the core values of celebrating the diversity of our campus and seeking an inclusive environment for all,” said Conoley.

As the tribes await the trial in June regarding the lawsuit, Native Americans hope that their fight to preserve and protect Puvungna resonates with the public, spreading awareness.

“Puvungna is everybody’s history, not just the Acjachemen or the Tongva, but it’s California history, and it is very important that we protect, and we preserve it and in its natural state,” said Castillo.

“A 10,000-year-old sacred site is something worth saving for the people of California,” said Robles. 

Protecting and Preserving Puvungna is a Community Effort.

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