A county road project on the edge of Lake Minnetonka exposed not only Indian burial mounds dating back hundreds of years, but miscommunication between the responsible state and county agencies.
Now, three years after the mounds were inadvertently destroyed during construction, their restoration is nearly complete. Mario Uribe, a member of the Upper Sioux Community near Granite Falls, Minn., has been waiting since then for the work to be done.
“I want to see it through to the end,” Uribe, 39, said on a recent biting afternoon at the mounds site, located in Minnetonka on the city border with Woodland. “And here we are.”
The restoration team — which included Hamline University graduates, state-contracted workers and members of Dakota communities — finished most of the restoration this month. Leaders with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council said they expect to close the site within a week and plan to reseed and fence the ground when it warms in the spring.
For Uribe, rebuilding the mounds — first mapped in 1883 — from a giant pile of excavated dirt was patient, sensitive labor that could have been avoided when Hennepin County first embarked on the project years ago.
“It’s been a long, hard road to get to this point,” he said. “If they did know about [the mounds], it could’ve been avoided.”
That point has been echoed for years by members of the Indian Affairs Council, including cultural resources director Jim Jones, who said no one consulted the state council when the project was first proposed.
Gov. Mark Dayton recently met with Dakota elders who oversaw the restoration to learn how to avoid the disruption of Indian cemeteries in the future. One suggestion was for the Indian Affairs Council to employ a “Dakota archaeologist liaison” who would consult the state during construction projects, according to Matt Swenson, Dayton’s assistant chief of staff.
The governor is “committed to working with them to improve how the state of Minnesota will prevent and respond to these incidents in the future,” Swenson said.
The reconstruction of Bushaway Road, a segment of Hennepin County Road 101 between Hwy. 12 and Minnetonka Boulevard, was expected to cost $19 million in 2009. By 2017, that price tag had risen to more than $60 million, according to county officials.
There were a number of reasons for the soaring budget, but another emerged when bone fragments were excavated from burial mounds near a proposed roundabout in October 2014. Construction was halted as county and state officials worked to fix the problem.
Scott Anfinson, the state archaeologist at the time, had signed off on the project, convinced there were no remains left on the site. Jones, however, said a consultant hired by the Indian Affairs Council had visited the site in 2010 and determined that mounds were in the project’s path.
Anfinson disagreed with the assessment. Another consultant studied the site and found no evidence of burial mounds, according to a 2011 report by the archaeologist’s office.
Restoring the mounds was supposed to last only through the summer of 2015. But the contract with Hamline was extended, and by the end of 2016 “it was evident more work would be necessary in 2017,” according to county documents.
The Hennepin County Board allocated $700,000 in May to finish the job.
The restoration was painstaking work, Uribe said, as the team had to manually sift through a mountain of dirt. “You couldn’t see the house next door,” he said.
For three years, they worked full shifts from May to October to rebuild about seven disturbed mounds. Using wooden sifters and shovels, they screened the soil for fragments and then put it back together.
“It wasn’t like we were bringing any big equipment into all the dirt,” Uribe said. “We treated it like an archaeological site.”
‘These are my ancestors’
Bushaway Road reopened a year ago, but the restoration team returned this summer to finish the job.
“It took us a long time, but that soil has now been completely screened,” Jones said.
Having guidance and approval from the Dakota community was an important component of the restoration, according to Uribe and Indian Affairs Council employees.
“These are my ancestors here,” Uribe said. “I want to do the right thing by them to do the recovery and repatriation the best we can.”
There are more than 12,000 known mounds in Minnesota, and many more unmarked ones. They are de facto cemeteries for Indians who lived here sometime between 500 B.C. and 1500 A.D.
Jones said they’re working closely with state archaeologist Amanda Gronhovd in hopes of “making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Gronhovd, who was appointed to the position in March 2016, had no comment.
A commemorative plaque will be erected on the site, according to county documents. Uribe expects there will be a reburial when work is finished.
“We can do the best that we can,” he said. “The ceremonies they had when they originally built these mounds, we can never recreate.”