Officials from the Minnesota Department of Transportation spared no words apologizing to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for desecrating a cemetery near Minnesota Highway 23 recently.
"No question, disturbing the sacred burial sites was an incredibly horrific event," MnDOT Commissioner Charles A. Zelle told a crowd of neighbors and band members Wednesday night at the Fond du Lac Community Church. "We do take responsibility. ... We're just beginning to understand the pain and the anger that comes from a disruption that we could have avoided."
But for many the damage had been done, and the implications were clear.
"I'm beginning to think we do not matter to you," said band member Matthew Northrup.
More than 60 people attended the meeting and peppered department officials with questions on how and why, after five years of planning, the band was not consulted and no flags were raised, considering the historic nature of the area in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood where highway construction was taking place.
The agency said its process did not include working with the band, and that process had failed.
MnDOT started work replacing the Mission Creek bridge and building a new access road to West Fourth Street on May 15 and stopped construction May 26 after the band had been notified of work in the area.
Human remains were found June 6 after construction had halted, and the next day the entire project was grounded and will be redesigned going forward.
Fond du Lac Band Chairman Kevin Dupuis urged the band and community members to come together and look ahead to what's next.
"Do I believe our ancestors are spread all over the road somewhere? Probably," he said solemnly. "But we can't change that now. What we can change is that this doesn't happen again."
Neighborhood residents who came out to the meeting were supportive of the band.
"Your history is more important than my house," said one area resident who declined to give his name.
The state will study the bones and artifacts that have been unearthed in a noninvasive way and work to restore the affected area in partnership with the band.
It wasn't until historian Christine Carlson was driving past the site May 25 that she brought the project to the band's attention. Carlson, who grew up in Fond du Lac, said she noticed the construction occurring in an area she knew to hold documented graveyards. It's land that has served as a gathering place, as well as a burial site, for Anishinaabe people since at least the 1600s.
This isn't the first time construction has disturbed Fond du Lac graveyards, said Carlson, who uses old newspaper clippings to help track the history. The first instance occurred in 1869 when the construction of the railroad unearthed bodies that were reburied at Roussain Cemetery. The second instance occurred in 1937 during the initial construction of Highway 23. Initially, MnDOT had stated that the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), which currently operates under the Minnesota Historical Society, also had to "approve" the plans. This isn't entirely accurate, said Jessa Kohen, public relations manager for the historical society. Instead the role of SHPO is to consult with federal and state agencies when requested.
"In this case, SHPO was asked by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review the bridge replacement portion of the road project only," Kohen wrote in an email to the News Tribune. "SHPO was not given an opportunity to review and consult with MnDOT on the Highway 23 reconstruction plans in their entirety."
Despite the apologies and restoration work just getting underway, Dupuis made clear there was no reason this should have happened.
"If I were to drive a backhoe through your cemetery, I would be arrested, I would be in jail," he said. "That's the bottom line."