Black Friday brings Shellmound protest

EMERYVILLE, Calif. – Hardcore shoppers woke up at dawn and hit the stores soon after, following the call of TV and radio advertisements instructing them to “Buy now, pay later.”

In a parking lot of the Bay Street Mall, a man drove away from Circuit City with a new 64-inch HD TV in his truck bed. The Shoe Pavilion next door declared it was “Going Out of Business.” Other windows were decked for Christmas. It was Black Friday. A day for shopping. And protest.

Just before noon, about 40 Shellmound walkers arrived at the outdoor mega-mall constructed to resemble a quaint Main Street, albeit with many parking lots and several levels and big box stores. For the past four years, this group of Natives and non-Natives has been walking several miles at a time the week leading up to Black Friday to draw attention to the desecration of sacred sites.

Their ending point has always been here – the site of the former Emeryville Shellmound, a mound of shellfish and animal remains, bone tools and other artifacts, human remains and earth that over centuries of inhabitance by the Muwekma Ohlone had grown to 40-feet high and 350-feet wide.

A steady stream of cars drove by as the walkers waved signs that read, “This Sacred Site is Older Than Pyramids,” “You Are Shopping on Burial Ground,” and “I Just Found Oakland, Can I Keep It?”

Some cars honked in support. Others turned to drive into the mall.

The Emeryville Shellmound was leveled for an amusement park in 1876, then a highly polluting industrial plant in 1924, and was finally excavated in 1999 to build the shopping mall. The 2,500 ancestral bones found on the site were handed over to scientists at U.C.-Berkeley, UCLA, Sonoma State University and Humboldt State University, according to the city’s Redevelopment Agency.

More than 12,000 California tribal remains are already housed at U.C.-Berkeley. Despite protests and support from legislators, a majority of the collection has yet to be returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Buddhist monks planned a fast in protest of the University’s possession of tribal remains from Dec. 1 to Dec. 4, and sat in prayer in front of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

On the Friday after the holiday known as Thanksgiving, four of the monks sat on the ground at the corner of Ohlone Way and Shellmound Street, named as a kind of peace offering to Natives who wanted the Shellmound site to be commemorated and recognized, “like the pyramids in Egypt,” said Miwok activist Wounded Knee DeCampo.

The Buddhist monks chanted in prayer and pounded drums. Behind them, protestors handed informational flyers to shoppers.

“This is a peaceful protest,” Muwekma Ohlone and Yokut organizer Corrina Gould reminded a circle of walkers. “We are not here to be screaming at people. We are here to educate, and get it out in a good spirit that we do not want people to be shopping at this mall.”

Some shoppers were surprised to hear of the site’s history. “I had no idea!” a mother exclaimed as she shared a flyer with her teenage daughter.

Another woman was not pleased to pass the protest on her way to shop. “I have not one bit of guilt,” she announced loudly to her male companion as they breezed past.

Just being a presence is important, said Cheyenne Gould, 18, who is Muwekma Ohlone and Yokut on her mother’s side and Cheyenne, Arapaho and Choctaw on her father’s.

“The power around me right now, it’s really strong, and it helps me cope with it; it does hurt that my ancestors are still here and there’s concrete and people shopping here – it’s disturbing,” she said. “You tell people and they’re like, ‘Really?’ Some have told me, ‘I’m never gonna shop here.’”

Many of the 425 shellmounds across the Bay Area have been razed and paved over, her mother told the walkers, including the Glen Cove Shellmound in Vallejo where homes and condo’s now stand. That is where DeCampo began his walk this year.

“Everything takes time,” he said. “But it’s gonna change because people are gonna start listening to Indigenous people. We tell them, ‘What if it was your cemetery?’”