Renee Werner, 13, stands solemnly on the right side of the black-and-white photo, just feet from where a casket sits ready for burial.

To her right, four American Indians wearing traditional garb look down at the plot where their Kaposia ancestors' bones will be reburied.

Werner — whose last name is now Ponto — often reflects on that day, when a ceremony was held to acknowledge the reburial of Dakota Indian remains on a piece of South St. Paul land, where they were supposed to remain undisturbed.

But Ponto, 72, worries the site's future is in danger, because part of it was sold to a private citizen. She's prepared to fight for its protection. She wants the two recently sold lots, which were part of a tract donated to the South St. Paul school district in 1927 for preservation, returned to the district so the parcel stays intact.

"I am the only one to carry on the battle," Ponto said. "Can you imagine selling off one-third of Oak Hill Cemetery [in South St. Paul] because some guy wants the land?"

Ponto grew up across the street from the site. Workers unearthed human remains while moving dirt sometime before 1938, when an initial burial ceremony was held, and again in 1958. A plaque was mounted on a boulder that year to commemorate "last known remains of the Kaposia Indians who resided in this area."

Kaposia was either the name of their band or their village.

Ponto's father, Reinhold Werner, was a photographer and historian. The county coroner called him to take photos when parts of skeleton were found in 1958 and at the reburial. Her father wrote a book in 1974 titled, "Burial Places of the Aborigines of Kaposia."

"He would be so upset," Ponto said. "He dedicated so many years of his life to making sure that land was protected."

Ponto fears the district will sell off more land, or that the owner of the lots will build atop the remains buried in 1938, since their exact location is unknown.

James Terrell, who paid $10,000 for the lots in 2003 through an arrangement finalized in 2014, said there's nothing to worry about. He doesn't intend to disturb the land — an oblong parcel with a steep drop-off, he said. His home sits next door.

"It's just my backyard," Terrell said. "There's literally no way you could build on it."

Returning to the earth

In 1927, Charles Clark donated seven lots on Highland Avenue to the school district to provide a memorial park dedicated to the Dakota Indians — also known as Sioux. Clark stipulated that it couldn't be sold and the school board voted to transfer the deed to the city, according to old newspaper articles. But that never happened, Ponto said, and the restrictive clause was either disregarded or forgotten when the two lots were sold.

While Clark's donation is documented, South St. Paul historian Lois Glewwe said other facts are fuzzy.

Today, Minnesota law protects all cemeteries and burial grounds whether they are officially recorded with the state archaeologist's office or not. Under the Private Cemeteries Burial Act, it is a felony to willfully disturb a burial ground. But landowners can build near burial sites if there is a buffer between the graves and the development, state officials said.

Jay Squires, the South St. Paul School district's attorney, said district officials have no reason to think the transaction with Terrell was improper. State law says any limitations on the land apply no matter who owns it, Squires said, and Indian burial grounds are commonly in private ownership.

Historians and state officials worry that future landowners might build on the Kaposia burial grounds, even if Terrell doesn't.

"The idea of a reburial is you put it in a place that won't be disturbed," said Bruce White, a historian who writes about Indians. "What's the point of finding a place to rebury it if you dig it up again? When does it ever stop?"

Jim Jones, cultural resource director for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, asked how any person would want their family members' graves treated. For American Indians, loved ones' remains — which have begun the cycle of returning to the earth — aren't just bodies, because a person's body and spirit are interconnected.

Ponto wants to raise awareness of the site's importance, and she wants South St. Paul to acquire the parcels and ensure that they remain undisturbed.

"This isn't to blame anybody, it's just to correct something that never should have happened," Ponto said.