DULUTH – A state road project that desecrated American Indian graves is "starting from scratch" next year after burial recovery wraps up this fall, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) officials said at a community meeting Wednesday night.
The archaeological study of the disturbed ground on the far western edge of Duluth was completed earlier this month, and now MnDOT crews will be racing against the weather to return soil to the cemetery area so it can be officially designated.
Work on the Mission Creek bridge replacement stopped in spring 2017 after members of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa told the state the area was likely a burial site, but not before human remains were unearthed. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and Office of the State Archaeologist have been surveying the land and its history since. The effort has cost more than $6 million so far, including the construction work that had been completed.
Former MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle came to Duluth in 2017 and apologized to the band at an emotional forum that saw band members outraged and saddened over the possible destruction of their ancestors' remains.
On Wednesday night, neighborhood residents asked, as band members had before, why work that took years of planning proceeded when there were historical records of burial grounds in the area.
"It is apparent that the cemetery has been previously disturbed, probably more than once," MnDOT spokeswoman Stephanie Christensen told the dozen folks who live near the work site in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood. "It should not have happened in the first place. At this point it's just a matter of stopping and doing what is right and what should have been done a long time ago."
While a disturbance and recovery of this scale is uncommon, burial sites and human remains are discovered around the state every year. St. Louis County Public Works unearthed bones and coffins during an exploratory dig ahead of roadwork in Duluth in 2018. And it took three years to restore burial mounds inadvertently destroyed during a county road project on the edge of Lake Minnetonka.
"Minnesota is really rich in cultural resources, so the potential is very high," Christensen said.
The state archaeologist is charged with protecting more than 12,000 Indian burial grounds and hundreds of historic cemeteries around Minnesota; the office is also the first point of contact for those who find remains outside of recorded burial sites.
In 2014, the most recent report available, the state archaeologist investigated 14 burial cases — 11 of them Indian burial sites — and authenticated four previously unrecorded cemeteries. In one case a planned Eden Prairie residential development was altered after mounds were discovered, though many had been destroyed.
In Duluth, officials expect the burial ground soil will be back in place within a month, though there is still landscape planning and work to be done. A reinterment ceremony is not yet planned but is likely.
Security will remain at the site over the winter, as the site has drawn a number of visitors and people going places they shouldn't, Christensen said.
"There's a surprising amount of curiosity," she said.
Disturbing a cemetery area is a felony, according to the state Private Cemeteries Act.
The bridge project is headed back to the planning stage and will likely take until 2023 to start construction — though it currently does not have money, likely around $3 million, to do so. Project manager Randy Costley said the planning would be expedited as much as possible.