"May peace be your gift at Christmas."
Late last summer I saw on my local ABC affiliate that a local shopping center located in Emeryville, California, had something very unique about it's particular landscape. In addition to a mall containing shops, upscale restaurants, and a theater, the mall sits on a shellmound, an ancient Ohlone Indian community, including a burial ground. The Bay Street Mall was built on one of the many (about 400) shellmounds that are in various parts of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The mall was built on that particular piece of property, because of it's easy access to 4 different freeways. In fact, this area was also a major area of commerce and culture for the Ohlone tribe. "Historically and prehistorically it was a gathering place for many different groups to come and trade, to come and gather, to feast, and bury their dead," said Chuck Stripen, and Ohlone descendent.
Recently a documentary film, "Shellmound" was released by local filmmaker Andres Cediel, who researched and made the documentary for his Master's Degree thesis at the University of California at Berkeley's graduate school of journalism. The filmmaker was intrigued with the fact what while he grew up a Bay Area, he had never heard anything in history class about the many Shellmounds in the area. His documentary details how the shellmound was created over time. How what started as a pile of discarded sea shells, eventually became a sacred place for the Ohlones. At the time of the shellmounds dismantling in the 1920's, the mound was 30 feet high and covered an area the approximate size of two football fields.
The shellmound became an amusement park, with a dance pavilion built directly atop the mound. People literally danced on the graves of the Ohlone residents. When the amusement park came down, a paint factory was built in it's place. A paint factory which eventually became a toxic waste dump with chemicals flowing into the San Francisco Bay. After the paint factory was closed the town of Emeryville began to clean up the site and that's when the property was first noticed by the Madison Marquette Developers in 2001. The delvelopment company worked together with representatives of the Ohlone tribe to try and build in the property as to not disturb the tribal remains.
As artifacts were discovered on the property, they were moved into small boxes and buried in a very narrow hole somewhere on the property. They placed a small monument to the shellmound stating that the bones and artifacts were from the Ohlone tribe and then the box and the monument were both paved over. There is an acknowledgement to the tribe and the artifacts found on the property, along with some photographs of the old shellmound, but there is no mention of the fact that people are actually buried beneath the mall.
There are many different views of the situation. Chuck Striplen, Ohlone representative says, "I think it would make shoppers uncomfortable if they if they advertised that they were shopping at Victoria's Secret over a burial ground. Developer, Eric Holliman says, "It is an incorrect characterization because a shellmound was a lot more then a cemetery, it was a city. It was a village. And filmmaker Andres Cediel says, "I think the biggest misconception about the site, is that it wasn't a cemetery, because it actually was and still is a cemetery. Archaeologists working in the Emeryville area say that over time more artifacts will continue to be found.
Until this past summer, the property that sits below the Bay Street Mall was not mentioned much. It was never made widely known that the Bay Street Mall was built on an ancient Ohlone burial ground. So tell me... would you feel comfortable shopping there? I have never actually been shopping at this particular mall personally. I have driven through the area and it is absolutely lovely. In fact it is one of the loveliest malls in the East Bay, but I have my own feelings about shopping there, knowing it's history. Tell me what you think. Is this a bad idea? Is this desecration of sacred ground?
San Mateo, California
November 25th, 2005
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