FOND DU LAC RESERVATION – Three years after a state road project desecrated Native American graves on the western edge of Duluth, a new cemetery will provide a natural "blanket and pillow for our ancestors," one of the designers told a crowd of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa members Wednesday night.
"It's not to make it a tourist site, but to make it for band members," said John Koepke, principal landscape designer with Urban Ecosystems. "And also so the general public knows this space is sacred and should not be disturbed."
Human remains were unearthed near Mission Creek not long after work began in spring 2017. The Minnesota Department of Transportation stopped the project when Fond du Lac band members alerted the state that the area was likely a burial site.
That stretch of the St. Louis River was home to the region's Indigenous residents for centuries before the Fond du Lac Reservation was established west of the area.
Originally a $2.9 million project, it will now cost more than $21 million through 2024, according to internal MnDOT budget estimates. That includes all burial recovery and cemetery restoration efforts as well as the redesign and construction of a new bridge over Mission Creek.
Band member Ricky DeFoe said Wednesday night that the restored cemetery is an opportunity to "do the right things."
"The reason we come together is because of policies that have been in effect for a long time that have been disrespectful to Indigenous people," he said.
The cemetery design that the band's council will be asked to approve includes forest and wetland restoration, a wall and path around the edge of the burial ground and space for reflection. Koepke said the place would have a private feel, and construction would have a "light touch."
In its pitch to MnDOT to handle the project, Urban Ecosystems said the process "must respect the cultural traditions of the Ojibwe people. ... This landscape is imbued with cultural meaning that transcends the legal boundaries of the site."
Of those who spoke at Wednesday's meeting at the Black Bear Casino Resort event center, some thought more should be done to honor the buried and share the story of the place, while others said the priority needed to be on keeping the area secure.
"I just want to know it's protected," said band member Robert Kesner.
All seemed to agree with Thomas Howe, the band's natural resources program manager: "We don't want this happening again because this site has been trampled on repeatedly over the years."
Urban Ecosystems is seeking the band's approval to move forward with cemetery construction plans. If that happens soon, construction could start this fall.
The Fond du Lac band took over work at the site in the fall of 2017 and has a $2.9 million state contract that runs through Sept. 30.
The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and Office of the State Archaeologist have been studying and documenting the area. Hamline University has been handling burial recovery.
MnDOT apologized for the oversight that led to the burial ground's disturbance and in 2017 said it's "a horrible, horrible thing, and it's MnDOT's responsibility."