Bill to preserve sacred Pala Band land signed into law by Biden

The Pala Band have used Chokla as a place to pray and fast since at least 1903, when the U.S. government forcibly moved the Cupeño from their ancestral home

NBC 7

President Biden Tuesday signed into law a bill to place into trust around 720 acres of land considered sacred to the Pala Band of Mission Indians just weeks after it unanimously passed the U.S. Senate.

The law -- authored by California's two Democratic senators, Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Fallbrook -- authorizes Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to transfer 721 acres that was acquired by the Pala into trust for the benefit of the tribe and its members.

"With the enactment of the Pala Act, historic lands belonging to the Pala Tribe will now be preserved in perpetuity," Issa said. "I am proud to partner with the Pala Tribe on this important step to protect their lands and safeguard their culture for future generations."

The land includes a sacred site known locally as Gregory Mountain or as Chokla in Luiseño. Chokla is next to Highway 76 and looms above the San Luis Rey River, the Pala Casino and an old quarry. A 20-year fight to build a landfill at its foot in Gregory Canyon was stopped in 2016 when the Pala Band of Mission Indians purchased a portion of the site for $13 million.

"With the passage of the legislation, our ancestral grounds, which is central to our spiritual and cultural traditions, will be forever protected as part of the Pala Reservation," said Chairman Robert Smith of the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

In 2019, Smith testified to Congress that the land was historically occupied by Native peoples and is a site of an ancestral village, rock art paintings and ancient artifacts.

The Pala Band -- made up of descendants from both Cupeño and Luiseño peoples -- have used Chokla as a place to pray and fast since at least 1903, when the U.S. government forcibly moved the Cupeño from their ancestral home near what is now Warner Springs in remote northeastern San Diego County to the reservation that already held Luiseño peoples not far south of Temecula.

According to the tribe's own history, the 40-mile journey from the place they called "Cupa" to Pala took three days.

The Luiseño people also used Chokla as a sacred place for centuries prior, describing it as one of the resting places of the powerful spirit Takwish. Shasta Gaughen, the tribe's environmental director and tribal historic preservation officer, described Takwish as keeping "the balance between life and death" in an article she wrote for Indian Voices prior to 2016.

Additionally, Medicine Rock, a sacred spot with ancient pictographs used for rituals and healing, is also located at the base of Chokla.

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