Posted: February 13, 2014 at 4:05 am

By Noelle Harris, Jeff Thomas and Zachary Voreh

 

More than 10 years ago, Wal-Mart wanted to build a $15 million mega-store on the land on which the Suncrest Towne Centre, a mall containing over 80 stores, now sits. However, after Wal-Mart discovered that it was the site of an ancient Native American burial ground, the national chain backed out of the deal, according to news reports.

This knowledge, however, did not prevent the land’s owner, West Virginia University, from finally selling the 9.2 acres that contained the burial ground to the developers who conceived the Suncrest Town Centre. WVU sold the land for $1.55 million despite the fact that Sylvia Straight, a wealthy Morgantown resident, had donated the land to the university years ago, intending for it to be used as an archaeological site. If the burial ground had been excavated and preserved for that purpose, it would have made the university a premier institution for archaeological research, according to federal officials.

Suncrest Towne Centre

The Suncrest Towne Centre was once home to the Monongahela tribe of West Virginia and the site of the tribe’s sacred burial remains . Photo by Noelle Harris

“It was a huge Native American resource that was not taken advantage of [academically],”  says Fred Pozuto, a Pittsburgh engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who evaluated the site because it contained wetlands. Instead, he says, “it was sold by WVU for income.”

In their evaluation of the site as wetlands, the Army Corps of Engineers found a total of seven graves in the area, as well as an oval field that had been used by the ancient Monongahela tribe for ceremonies, sporting events and living quarters. The graves and huts that the tribal members lived in were once located on the same site that, 400 years later, is now occupied by Buffalo Wild Wings and Jos. A. Banks.

A federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act  says that ancient burial remains found on land that is owned by the federal government or a current Native American reservation must be preserved and a complicated process followed.  Even if the letter of the law doesn’t apply in this case, scholars say that academic institutions and private developers should preserve Native American remains according to the guidelines in the federal statute. At the time WVU owned the land, these guidelines were not adhered to.

“I think that developers should follow those [guidelines] if they can,” said Darla Spencer, a retired professor of Native American Studies at West Virginia University. “But they may not always do that.”

Some states have additional legislation that protect Native American burial sites. In Virginia and Massachusetts, for example, companies are required to save a portion of a land as historical property for further study. However, the state of West Virginia does not have such legal protections, says Nancy Ganz, a Morgantown city councilor.

The Monogahela tribe had small additions to their homes called petals that Archeologist believe were used for storage. Artist rendering  provided by Darla Spencer

The Monogahela tribe had small additions to their homes called petals that Archeologist believe were used for storage.
Artist rendering provided by Darla Spencer

At the time when Wal-Mart was wrestling with whether or not to build a store on the property,  a community group, which called itself Citizens for Responsible Development, suggested that the land be used to house a museum honoring the people who once lived there. In 2000, the group even presented the idea to the Morgantown City Council, which approved the plan. But ultimately the city had no authority to enact it because the property sits outside the city limits, according to an Associated Press article.

Less than a year later, in November 2001, the WVU Foundation sold the 9.2 acres of land for $1.55 million to CMC Company, which was owned by David and Richard Biafora, who own a lot of real estate in the area, including Metro Towers. The Biaforas later sold the land to Gateway Towne Centre in 2003, which also acquired an adjoining parcel of land worth $1.73 million.

Gateway quickly excavated the burial remains, and in what some scholars consider the height of irony, gave the remains to members of the Seneca tribe in New York, which was not only not related to the Monongahela tribe but considered its traditional enemy. According to Spencer, the Seneca tribe may have even pushed the Monongahela tribe out of the area.

This is not the first time that native American remains have been desecrated in West Virginia and other states.

Michael Sherwin, a professor at WVU, recently did a photography project entitled “Vanishing Points.” Inspired by what happened at  Suncrest Towne Centre, his project featured the vanishing Native American landscapes that were destroyed by business and development. The Towne Centre site is just one of many sites in West Virginia Sherwin featured in the photos. The project includes photos of Native American historical sites surrounded by development in South Charleston, W.Va. and Clarksburg, W.Va.

While the new mall is considered a smashing business success (especially for its developers), some officials see it as one more example of an institution putting profit before academic prestige.

“I found it disappointing that the university sold the property instead of furthering education,” Pozuto says.