Above photo: Michelle Castillo, a Native American community leader at Puvungna when crews were dumping dirt in 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.
A state department tasked with preserving historic landmarks recently criticized Cal State Long Beach for depositing soil and debris from a construction zone on a parcel of land called Puvungna that is sacred to local Native American tribes.
Construction to expand student housing near the site sparked outcry, protests and a lawsuit from tribal leaders last year. And in an August letter, the California Office of Historic Preservation, which reviews construction projects near archaeological landmarks, weighed in on the controversy.
“CSULB should have consulted with my office before the Project,” wrote Julianne Polanco, a state historic preservation officer.
She noted that construction debris—such as asphalt, rebar and concrete—was mixed into the soil and should not have been laid over a nationally registered historic place. She also wrote that the use of plastic sheeting to cover the land below the deposited soil was not ideal as it could capture moisture from the air and damage artifacts buried at the site.
The letter shows that CSULB reached out to the preservation office to review its management of the project and to seek council on its proposed treatment plan for the site—but only after the dumping began. School officials said they consulted with tribal representatives and met with an internal committee to discuss the project before starting, but other Native American groups said they were never warned about the dumping on Puvungna, which they viewed as a desecration of a sacred space.
For the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation-Belardes tribe, Puvungna carries as much religious and cultural significance as the city of Jerusalem or the Mecca, said Patricia Martz, president of a cultural conservation nonprofit that cosigned the tribe’s legal complaint agains CSULB, which is still being litigated.
“Puvunga is the place where their god Chinigchinich appeared and gave them their laws,” she said.
Martz emphasized she doesn’t speak for the tribe, but she noted that its leaders are pleased with the state’s letter to CSULB, “because it supports what they have been trying to say.”
Martz alleges that there is one discrepancy in the letter: CSULB said that based on consultation from the tribe, the plan would be able to cap the soil, protecting any sacred artifacts underneat the surface. She said that this was not true, and what they really asked for was to allow up to six inches of the deposited soil to remain for protection as heavy machinery is used to remove most of the dirt that was dropped there.
Jeff Cook, a spokesman for CSULB, in an email to the Long Beach Post said the school is “working with the state Office of Historic Preservation to resolve the open issues raised in the letter.”
A timeline for moving forward is unclear. CSULB officials provided the state office with a treatment plan that outlines the school’s intentions to preserve the land, but Polanco wrote the plan submitted was only a draft and urged CSULB to submit a final proposal.
Sebastian Echeverry is the North Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of his grant-funded position with the Long Beach Post. If you want to support Sebastian’s work, you can donate to his Report for America position at lbpost.com/support.