Why burial recovery efforts have resumed along Mission Creek

Once believed to be completed in 2019, the Minnesota Department of Transportation revealed ongoing recovery efforts for remains and artifacts this week.

Using sieves, workers under white canopies search for artifacts and remains from the Mission Creek cemetery in Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood as traffic passes by on Minnesota Highway 23 on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Work on rebuilding the cemetery will begin this fall. (Steve Kuchera /

Shovel testing on smaller piles of soil has led to the continued search for more burial remains and artifacts at an Indigenous cemetery in Duluth that was disturbed by construction in 2017.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation had previously announced the completion of burial recovery work at the site along Mission Creek in October 2019. The news was well-reported at the time.

But earlier this week, MnDOT district engineer Duane Hill brought up that efforts had resumed to uncover more remains and artifacts at the site along Minnesota Highway 23 in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth.

The News Tribune asked MnDOT about the discrepancy Friday. Through a spokesperson, the agency said continued talks and shovel testing on remaining soils yielded the need for further recovery.

"As a result of shovel testing, the decision was made to process the smaller piles before moving forward with the landscape restoration project," MnDOT spokesperson Stephanie Christensen said.


A $2 million project to restore the cemetery begins this fall and is expected to be completed in 2022.

Mission Creek burial site.jpg

Christensen explained why the agency announced an end to recovery work in fall 2019.

"At that time we had completed sifting the large piles of soil that had originally been moved from the cemetery area," Christensen said. "These were the ones that were covered by hoop-houses and stockpiled on the right side of Highway 23 as you drove into Fond du Lac. Completing the recovery work on those soils was a tremendous milestone and marked the return of stockpiled soils to the cemetery area."

After completion of recovery work, the site was shut down for winter. The ensuing year-plus has been spent planning for cemetery restoration , as well as restarting the planning process for the bridge reconstruction project that desecrated the cemetery in the first place. The estimated $4.2 million bridge replacement project is the subject of ongoing public meetings with a construction timeline to have it built by 2024.

The start of the cemetery restoration project has been delayed twice. Throughout that time, Christensen explained that MnDOT has continued to meet with its project partners — the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the Office of the State Archaeologist — "to assess the site and plan for landscape restoration," Christensen said.

"It was then that the decision was made to conduct shovel testing on smaller piles located in a different area of the site near the central cemetery," she said.


All told, 1,600 cubic yards of soil — 160 dump trucks worth — were displaced from the cemetery at the start of the Highway 23 bridge replacement project in 2017 over Mission Creek. Much of the soil had been moved around to other parts of the construction site prior to the discovery of remains.

The cemetery restoration project will create forested burial grounds defined by a stone wall.

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