Enbridge's hotly contested new oil pipeline is slated to cross land claimed by indigenous people for thousands of years.

But not before Indian tribes have completed an archaeological survey of the pipeline route, the largest effort of its kind in Minnesota and maybe the country.

Surveyors, hailing from several Upper Midwest tribes, may have already found the remnants of a long lost tribal village. They are documenting everything from traditional wild ricing spots to buried artifacts.

"We're helping to preserve what's ours," Rob King, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and an electrician by trade, said as he used a screen to sift dirt at an archaeological dig. "If we find something, we make an impact."

Minnesota's Ojibwe bands have fiercely opposed the $2.6 billion pipeline, fearing environmental havoc from oil spills. The tribal cultural survey won't stop the pipeline. But it could result in small route changes that would forestall the disturbance of sacred tribal sites during pipeline construction, as has happened on state highway projects in recent years.

The approved route of Enbridge's new pipeline — a replacement for its current Line 3 that will carry Canadian oil to the company's terminal in Superior, Wis. — runs through a pastiche of prairie, woods and wetlands in northern Minnesota. While state regulators have approved the project, Enbridge must get water-crossing permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the pipeline.

Connecting bands to their history

Under federal law, the Corps must consult tribes on historic-preservation issues. In those talks, the tribes pushed for the cultural survey. They weren't satisfied with an earlier archaeological survey done by an Enbridge contractor, saying it lacked the bands' participation. The current survey — funded by Enbridge — is being coordinated by the Fond du Lac band.

"Our history has been erased," said Wayne Dupuis, Fond du Lac's environmental program manager. "Much of the history taught in the United States begins with the landing of Columbus, but there was much more before that."

About 60,000 American Indians live in Minnesota; the Ojibwe, dominant in northern Minnesota, are the largest tribe, followed by the Dakota. But many tribes have ancestral ties to the state, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho, both of which now reside farther west.

The Ojibwe, originally from the Atlantic coast, migrated here in the 1600s, eventually displacing the Dakota in northern Minnesota. The state's Ojibwe and Dakota bands are among 40 tribal groups participating in the survey.

"A tribal survey of this magnitude, with so many tribes involved — this is the first time it has occurred," said Jill Hoppe, the Fond du Lac band's tribal historic preservation officer.

More than a job

On a recent day, the survey crew of 26 Indians included members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe from South Dakota and the Santee Sioux Nation in Nebraska, as well as members of several Ojibwe bands in Minnesota. They all gathered in a hotel parking lot to start the morning, forming a circle.

The crew's leader explained the day's objectives while workers passed around a conch shell filled with burning sage — a purifying and cleansing ritual. As the shell traveled the circle, Hattie Dunham sang a cappella in her native Lakota language.

The crew then split into four groups and headed to different locations on the pipeline route. Dunham, who works for the Rosebud tribe, spent the day at a site near Bagley digging amid wildflowers and wild raspberry bushes.

"To me, [the work] is a blessing," she said, shovel in hand. "I know it sounds hokey to some people, but it's been spiritual to me."

Other crew members concurred. "It re-centered me and put me back in touch with the native community," said Todd Defoe, a member of the Fond du Lac band. Defoe had worked for years in marketing for casinos, both in the Midwest and in Las Vegas, before tiring of the business.

Now he runs a fishing-guide operation, allowing him time to work on the survey.

"It's more than a job," he said. "When you hold a piece of pottery in your hand, for a split second, you are in the space of someone who held it two or three or 10 thousand years ago."

Surveyors have found pottery shards, as well as points from spears or arrows, possible stone tools and bison bones that have been broken to scoop out marrow. What appear to be human-made mounds have been discovered, though it's not clear yet if they are burial grounds.

Perhaps the most exciting find, so far: possible evidence of a "hidden" Dakota village. Ojibwe oral histories describe a Dakota village obscured by an earthen berm, said Jim Jones, a lead project manager for the cultural survey. The Ojibwe took the village in a long-ago battle.

A spot along the pipeline route — complete with earthen berm — matched the location and lore of the hidden village.

"It's pretty amazing," said Jones, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Using the results

When surveyors find a significant site, they aim to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Enbridge will work to avoid such sites during pipeline construction, including tweaking the route if necessary, said Bobby Hahn, the company's Line 3 environmental supervisor.

Enbridge's new Line 3, unlike its six pipelines currently intersecting Minnesota, will not traverse Indian reservations.

But the new Line 3 crosses plenty of land ceded under duress by the Ojibwe in the 19th century. The tribes claim treaty rights to hunt, gather and fish on those lands.

Enbridge needs permits from the Army Corps to cross hundreds of waterways and wetlands with the new pipeline.

The Corps, after meetings with the tribes last year, ordered that a tribal cultural survey be done on 66 miles along the route. At the tribes' behest, the Corps later increased that requirement to 201 miles, and Enbridge eventually opened the entire 340-mile route to surveyors.

Enbridge is paying for the study. The company said it will cost $5 million to $6 million, much of which will cover survey workers' wages.

"We have not done something of this magnitude with the tribes," Hahn said.

Enbridge wants the study completed by September, though Hoppe said it's not likely to be done until October. About 140 miles has been surveyed so far.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which approved the pipeline in June, has ruled that the cultural survey must be done before Enbridge can start construction.

It's Enbridge's job to get permission from landowners to accommodate the survey. So far, while some property owners have objected, surveyors have been "pretty well received," Jones said.

Jones is on leave from his job as cultural resources director for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. He has spent the past 20 years with the council protecting Indian burial grounds, including trying to prevent incidents like the one that occurred last year near Duluth.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation unearthed part of a Fond du Lac grave site while doing an improvement project on Hwy. 23. The graveyard had been documented, and the Fond du Lac band had not been consulted before the state began digging.

The Hwy. 23 incident shows that "the standard interpretation of the archaeological record usually does not recognize sites of cultural and religious significance to the tribes," the Fond du Lac band said in a PUC filing.

A similar incident occurred in 2015 when Indian burial grounds were breached during a road construction project in Minnetonka.

A 'living connection'

Through a tribal lens, the cultural survey takes a broader view than traditional archaeology.

Historically significant places can be directly tied to the present: for instance, wild rice waters and maple-sugaring spots that have been used by generations of tribes. The same goes for a field dotted with traditional medicinal plants.

"There is a living connection to the history," Jones said.

To survey the route, Jones uses everything from global positioning devices to oral histories from tribal elders. He's particularly searching for "cultural corridors" — waterways and trails that tribes have used for hundreds if not thousands of years. Insight into these places is best found within the tribes themselves, Jones said.

"We need to hear the voices of traditional people when we start talking about archaeology," he said. "That's what makes this project unique."

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003