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No Common Ground : Indians Say 22-Acre Site Is Sacred but Cal State Long Beach Disagrees and Plans to Lease It to Developer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To 76-year-old Lillian Valenzuela Robles, it is the same issue that for the past five centuries has caused so much bloodshed, hatred and pain.

White society wants to develop the land. And American Indians want to keep it the way it is.

“They aren’t going to win this time,” said Robles, a diminutive, white-haired elder of the Juaneno tribe who has been maintaining a vigil to protest plans by Cal State Long Beach to develop a small tract of land that she and other American Indians say is sacred. “How would you like somebody to come along and put a fence around your church and say, ‘Get out of here, we’re going to put up a mini-mall?’ You wouldn’t let them do that. And we aren’t going to, either.”

For the past two weeks, Robles, a Long Beach resident, has been sleeping on the hard ground on or near the site. At dawn and sunset, she walks around the contested area, carrying tobacco and sage in an abalone shell and performing an ancient ceremony to purify the land.

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Although she knows it may sound strange to non-Indian ears, she insists that “this land speaks to me. It calls to me. And I have to do whatever I can to protect it. It’s hard (sleeping on the ground), but when you have a just cause, it gives you strength.”

At issue is a 22-acre parcel next to Bellflower Boulevard, on the west side of the Cal State Long Beach campus. The dispute began not as a battle between university officials and American Indians, but between the officials and a group that proved to be equally militant in their concern for the land--organic gardeners.

On Earth Day in 1970, university officials had dedicated a 2.2-acre plot to students, faculty members and community residents who wanted to raise organic vegetables. For the next two decades, corn, tomatoes and other crops were grown in more than 150 small gardens on the site.

Last year, however, university officials ordered the gardeners off the site so the school could turn it into a temporary parking lot. The university’s long-term plans were to lease the entire 22-acre site to developers for construction of a mall containing shops, restaurants and townhomes.

University officials backed away from turning a garden into a parking lot, but the gardeners’ eviction notice stuck. Despite protests--one women even chained herself to a fence--earlier this month the remaining gardens were chopped down by university workers.

The gardeners, meanwhile, had found a powerful ally in their fight against having the land developed: Indians.

That the site contains Indian remains has been known since 1972, when they were found by workmen digging a trench near the organic gardens. . Research indicated that the area might have been the site of a Gabrielino Indian village called Puvungna, birthplace of a deity called Chunquichnish, the lawgiver and god of the Gabrielinos. The Gabrielinos lived along the Southern California coast and on coastal islands. Before the Spanish invasion, they numbered in the tens of thousands; today, fewer than a thousand Gabrielinos remain.

The remains were buried across the street from the gardens, and a wooden sign was posted declaring the area as the site of Puvungna village. In 1974, the area around the organic gardens was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of only three archeological sites in Los Angeles County to be so designated.

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But when officials drew up their development plans for the 22-acre site, they apparently made no mention of its historic status--even going so far, opponents say, as to delete references to the historic site status from campus maps.

“The university was simply trying to erase the thing,” said Mary Ellen Zinser, an uprooted gardener who has been active in the fight against development of the site. “They think there’s no law other than their own law. But they’re not going to get away with it.”

When American Indian groups got word of the university’s plans, they quickly mobilized. Although they had never objected to the site being used for organic gardening, they strongly objected to it being turned into a mall.

Earlier this month, a group of protesters, including Robles, began a prayer vigil at the garden site. But they were evicted by university workers, who put up a chain-link fence and “no trespassing” signs. Robles has since maintained her vigil at a site across the street.

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The American Civil Liberties Union has also become involved, sending the university a letter demanding that the Indians be given access to the “religious site"--the fenced-off former gardens and surrounding property--and that the university abandon its development plans. Otherwise, the organization says, it will take the university to court.

The university has said it will conduct an archeological survey to see if the site merits preservation. But Raleigh Levine of the ACLU says no such survey is necessary.

“If (the Indians) believe it is a sacred site, then it is a sacred site,” Levine said. “It’s not a question of historical or scientific significance; the question is one of religious significance.”

Gregory Sanders, an attorney for Cal State Long Beach, said the university has been the victim of a “disinformation campaign,” adding that only recently have Indians claimed that the site is sacred.

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“This university has always been very sensitive to Native American issues,” Sanders said.

The state Native American Heritage Commission, a nine-member board that investigates claims that Indian cultural sites are being endangered, has been holding hearings to determine if the parcel is considered sacred.

At a commission meeting in Malibu on Friday, both sides presented their arguments, but neither seemed able to persuade the other.

“Both sides think they’re doing what is appropriate,” said commission Chairman Bill Mungary. “Unfortunately, many times things like this end up in litigation.”

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Robles, meanwhile, said she will continue her vigil.

“At one time, our villages covered the entire 500 acres around here,” she said. “This is the last 22 acres left, and now they want that, too? How can they be so greedy? I’ll stay as long as it takes, and if I drop dead, somebody else will take my place. This time, we aren’t going to go away.”


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