Brief History of Puvungna: Cal State Long Beach Is a Holy Land

During my time in Long Beach, I've spent a lot of time with Cambodians.  Cambodians number just under 20,000 or so in the City of Long Beach, and 44,000 in LA County.  Most of them came during the 1980s after stays in refugee camps, the result of social fracture and disorganization after the Khmer Rouge regime.  Today, in 2012, we see a new generation of Cambodian-Americans:  Long Beach and other places in the United States is home and whatever environment they've grown up is their adopted "culture."

The very last semester of my classes, however, I took a slight turn away from hanging with the Cambodians.  For a project in media and ethnography, I spent time and energy researching the CSULB Special Collections for who and what used to be on Cal State Long Beach.

Cal State Long Beach is known not just as a University but as the birthplace of the Gabrielino-Tongvan deity Chingishnish. Cal State Long Beach itself erected a sign in the 1970s supporting this legend.  They used this legend in some promotional materials for the school.

The legend of Chingishnish had been first recorded in history by Franciscan missionary Geronimo Boscana in the 1820s, around the time that the California Missions had been losing financial support from Spain to continue on.  When we interviewed her, Cindi Alvitre, one of the leaders of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe today, said that her grandfather would tell her stories about how he was not told to speak too loudly around the area near Cal State Long Beach, by then, sometime in the 1900s, known as the Bixby Farm, because it was "sacred land."

The legend of Chingishnish has been questioned for a while now, mostly by academics.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Anthropologists were disputing just exactly what the legend of Chingishnish meant:  was he a deity or a historical figure?  John Harrington thought he was a historical figure.  Alfred Kroeber, a big name in early Anthropology, questioned the overall historicity and tradition of the Chingishnish beliefs, stating that their beliefs arose as a response to the growth of the California Missions.  

Long Beach proved to be something of a hot spot for archaeologists from the 1920s onward.  According to a survey in 1993 by Scientific Research Surveys, there are officially 35 archaeological sites in Eastern Long Beach.  Artifacts had been uncovered and verified in the 1950s near what is now the Los Altos Shopping Center, which is known as LAn-270, and at a site called LAn-702 discovered in 1974.  Puvungna has historically been placed at LAn-306 at the top of Bixby Hill on Rancho Los Alamitos.  This is about a mile away from where the big discovery was to be made.

In 1972, a big discovery was made at the Cal State Long Beach campus.  A skeleton was found   where a sprinkler system was being installed next to an organic garden.  This was a site designated by archaeologists as LAn-235 and had already been a point site of interest since 1960 when Kenneth Dixon had uncovered some artifacts.

The Coroner’s office eventually found the skeleton to be “human and of antiquity beyond concern of the Coroner.” Additionally the office found that it was buried in a way consistent with an “ancient burial.” On this basis, Cal State Long Beach Archaeologist Kenneth Dixon registered the site on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. 

With this new designation of LAn-235 as a Historic Place, the university stopped plans for future development throughout the rest of the 1970s and early 1980s.  They stopped plans to build housing for a president.  On an archaeological site site designated LAn-234, right next to LAn-235 they erected a sign commemorating the historic designation and even featured the legend of Puvungna in their marketing materials.  

In the early 1990s, conflict arose again. Part of the LAn-235 land had been dedicated for use as a community garden since the 1970s.  The Tongva had determined that the community garden was "not in conflict" with its past as a site of religious significance.  However, the university had other plans. The university went public with plans to not only "delete" the community garden but first build a parking lot en route to building a strip mall and housing.  The short documentary Sacred Land, White Man's Laws outlined the conflict.

A lot of the legal conflict seemed to flame out when a new chancellor Robert Maxson scrapped the strip mall plans and promised in 1995 to preserve the land.  He kept his promise till when he left in 2005.  There hasn't been much outward conflict with the incumbent chancellor F. King Alexander who replaced Maxson, but it hasn't been all positive.  In 2007, two professors at CSULB and six tribal members proposed to develop Indigenous Educational Facility on Lot 20 as had been planned in 1978.  The offer has not been declined per se, but there hasn’t been action towards its establishment.

Today, though probably not over, the conflict seems to be contained within the theoretical and the academic world between Archaeologists/Anthropologists.  Matthew Boxt and L.Mark Raab, Archaeologists from Cal State Northridge and hired by Cal State Long Beach to survey the sites, wrote papers criticizing advocates of Puvungna. They opined that ideas of what Puvungna was and is were influenced largely by Anthropological work.  In the vein of Kroeber, they hinted that tradition was sort of fabricated by not those studied, but by those who were doing the studying.  At their worst, they took special aim at CSULB emeritus professor of Anthropology/Archaeology Keith Dixon, saying that he'd invented the idea of there being a village of Puvungna.

Meanwhile, Dixon maintains that very rarely does an archaeological site match up with a purported legendary site and that he was merely following the ethnohistorical evidence. 

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