On Puvungna

Tribal elder Lloyd Valenzuela, left, and Dustin Murphey stand on one of the dirt berms dumped on the Puvungna site.

Cal State Long Beach President Jane Close Conoley issued a video statement Wednesday, Jan. 13, saying that the university has no plans to build anything on 22 acres of historic Puvungna tribal land on campus.

But tribal representatives say that's not enough, and they are continuing a lawsuit about the property.

The fate of that land, on the west side of the campus along Bellflower Boulevard, has been controversial for decades. The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation consider it sacred and have fought to keep the university from building on it.

Then in the fall of 2019, dirt from a construction site elsewhere on campus was dumped on Puvungna, creating berms (long hills of dirt) of soil and debris. The Juaneño Band objected and eventually filed a lawsuit demanding the soil's removal.

In her message Wednesday, Conoley says that the university had worked with the campus committee on Native American Burial Remains and Cultural Patrimony. Keeping all soil on campus was the preference at that time because Native American groups consider the entire campus a sacred site.

But Dustin Murphey, a member of the Juaneño tribal council, said the outside tribes should have been consulted. Settlement talks have failed, he said, and the lawsuit continues.

"My initial reaction is that the university got caught and now they are trying to backtrack," Murphey said Wednesday after seeing the video. "They haven't and still aren't living up to their promise to speak the truth."

A key to the fight has been Cal State plans for use of the land. The Juaneño Band and other Native American groups use the site for meetings and ceremonies. Conoley's message Wednesday addressed the ongoing concern.

"Rumors involve a new university plan for a parking lot on that land," Conoley says. "That is untrue. There are no plans in place for a structure of any kind on that land.

"As we move further into a 10-year physical master plan for the university, the undeveloped portions of this area of campus will be held in reserve, wit no building plans noted at all," she adds.

However, Murphey produced emails between university administrators referencing plans to level the new soil and put in a temporary, gravel parking lot. The emails are among the documents being submitted in the lawsuit, and will be subject to a certification hearing before the judge this Friday.

Conoley's message does not mention the lawsuit. She does say the university is working with the Native American Heritage Commission, the state Historic Preservation Officer and "other interested parties" to come up with a plan to integrate the dumped soil into the property and introduce native plants there.

Murphey and others have said they do not trust university officials to leave the property alone, and have been insisting on a memorandum of agreement to leave that property undeveloped in perpetuity. Murphey reiterated that demand Wednesday.

"I would hope that she is honest about what she's saying regarding not building there," Murphey said. "But they need to remove that soil and put it elsewhere on campus. The 10-year plan should acknowledge this is sacred ground, and we want it preserved indefinitely, not just for 10 years."

Conoley and university presidents before her have declined to commit the university system to that. But, Conoley said, it should be clear her interest is to keep the property as it is now.

"We have long said that we honor and respect interest in that site," she says in the video. "This commitment has been in place during my entire presidency… Honoring our First People is part of the core values of celebrating diversity on this campus."

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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