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CSULB partners with local Native American tribes to rebury indigenous remains

While students searched for parking and raced to class Thursday morning, flowers and shells covered the earth and ancestral songs filled the air near Lot 20 as Cal State Long Beach celebrated the reburial of Native American remains and artifacts.

The event, which was a celebration of the actual reburial in July of this year, was held in anticipation of Friday’s California Native American Day and was attended by Cal State University Chancellor Timothy White, CSULB President Jane Close Conoley, Director of the American Indian studies program Craig Stone and representatives from different Native American tribes.

“These ancestors have waited a long time to be returned to the earth,” said Louis Robles Jr., chairman of the Committee on Native American Burial Remains.  “… this wouldn’t be possible without cooperation from so many different organizations and groups.”

CSULB’s repatriation was a collaborative effort with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law which provides assistance to native tribes in order to return sacred and cultural items to their original location.

Finding the remains on the CSULB campus was no surprise, as the university’s land is well known to be the ancient settlement of Puvungna. The land belonged to the Tongva people, who spanned the Los Angeles and Long Beach area.

Returning the remains of native peoples and the cultural artifacts buried with them provides a sense of closure, Stone said, as it symbolizes modern society and the native world joining together.

Robles Jr., whose mother was one of the original committee members, said that repatriation is an encouragement to the campus and indigenous peoples everywhere.

“It truly serves as inspiration; it’s inspiration for the students, it’s inspiration for the … university,” he said, “it’s inspiration for other tribal groups because already word has spread what has occurred here and is giving them hope that they will be able to work to return their ancestors and their associated goods.”

The reburial, which actually took place in July, was a collaborative effort between the campus community and the Tongva/Gabrielino, Juaneño/Acjachemen and Chumash tribes. The site itself is located on the land next to the International House and is marked with sunflowers, stones and an abalone shell.

Students and faculty from various programs such as American Indian studies, anthropology and environmental science worked with these local tribes to identify the remains, select the reburial site and the reburial ceremony itself.

Remains from the Puvungna settlement were originally found in the early 1950s during construction on the campus. After being found, the artifacts were held in various labs and storage facilities around campus.

According to Cindy Alvitre, a member of the reburial committee and professor of anthropology at CSULB, it was originally thought that there were 21 people buried at the original site; however, after work started to identify the remains, the number grew to almost 100.

It wasn’t until 1978 that work began on returning the remains to their original burial place, according to Stone.

Stone said that then-CSULB President Steve Horn was very supportive of the idea to repatriate the remains; however, it wasn’t until the passing of the 1990 Native American Graves and Repatriation Act that a committee was formed with the sole purpose to return the items.

Sunflowers and abalone shells decorate the site of the reburied remains of the Tongva people next to the International House.
Lindsey Maeda
Sunflowers and abalone shells decorate the site of the reburied remains of the Tongva people next to the International House.

Even then, there was a problem of the university, the chancellor’s office and the state not supporting the reburial at the same time. Stone said that all three of these institutions had to be in agreement at the same time in order for the repatriation to happen.

Alvitre added that she hopes there will be continued efforts to correct historical wrongs.

During the ceremony, Conoley said she was proud to be part of a campus that is “one of the first universities under NAGPRA to return our indigenous ancestors to campus burial sites.”

White also commended CSULB, adding that the campus is a sacred space for students, faculty and staff – but it was sacred long before the first building was constructed.

While CSULB is the first in the nation to rebury native remains, there are many more universities, such as CSU San Marcos and San Diego State, that have been built on sacred sites. Stone said that he hopes that what happened at CSULB will set a precedent for other campuses.

Conoley said that she believes the reburial will set an international example for other countries that have indigenous populations.

“… Professor Alvitre told me that there’s a Thai student who’s studying with her now because they have a similar problem in Thailand in terms of burial sites because of all the development going on,” she said, “and she’s studying to figure out if she can go home and create a NAGPRA model that would be useful in Thailand, so imagine the international possibilities of that.”

Robles Jr. concluded his speech by thanking the ancestors for guiding those who were involved in the reburial process, especially those who do not have Native American heritage.

“For the people that live here in this great state but don’t have the ties that [Native American descendants] do — that stand on the cliffs and look at our beach, that walk in our mountains, that enjoy the desert sky — [the ancestors] remind them that no matter where you go in this great state, a native Californian has walked there before you.”

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