The Minnesota Department of Transportation is going back to square one with its Minnesota Highway 23 road and bridge project after the agency damaged a Native American burial site in May.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council has started working to determine the boundaries of the cemetery and the location of remains, as well as recover the graves that have been damaged and find remains - which entails sifting with a screen through 600 cubic yards of soil that has already been disturbed.
They haven’t determined yet the extent of the road construction’s impact, said Jim Jones, cultural resource director with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.
“We don’t know how many. We don’t know the extent of what the boundary is. We don’t know what other resources have been impacted, but we’re going to get there,” Jones said.
About 75 people heard an update on the project during a Tuesday open house at Chambers Grove Park in Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood, which began with a drum circle and ended with a moment of silence for the people whose graves were disturbed.
While MnDOT works to redesign the project, it’ll create temporary paths for pedestrians and bicyclists and improve vehicular safety in the coming months, said MnDOT District Engineer Duane Hill.
On May 26, two weeks into road construction, MnDOT stopped work on the bridge and road project after the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa raised concerns about the cemetery. Further inspection of the site found human remains on June 6. The band learned about the project from a community member after work had begun, the band said in June. During an open house in June, MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle said the agency took responsibility for disturbing the burial site, which he said was “an incredibly horrific event.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be revoking its permit for the project due to the disturbance of the burial site and the bridge won’t be constructed this year, Hill said.
“I think what we’ve learned so far is that every place we’ve looked, we’ve found artifacts and we have to take that into consideration as we develop a new set of plans to replace this bridge,” Hill said.
After Jones described the damage to some of the remains - including that bones were sheared off by construction equipment - Judy Northrup said to Jones, “I think it’s easy to, well, it’s not easy, it’s hard, but it’s possible to fix things. But you can’t fix our broken hearts. Those are our ancestors and all of our hearts are being broken. How do you fix that?”
One neighborhood resident said he wanted to know why the graves weren’t marked and whether band members were contacted as part of MnDOT’s process. He quickly exited the meeting when his comment that nearby residents “are the only ones being punished” by the halt to the project was met with shouts from the audience, telling him, “Sell your place!”
After he left, Jones explained that the band may have been consulted about the bridge itself, but the scope of the road project outside of the bridge wasn’t discussed with band members.
The cemetery has been previously disturbed on two occasions, and Jones said that when the coffins of white people were moved from the cemetery in the 1800s, Native American burial coffins were left behind because they didn’t have Christian markers. However, they had spirit houses marking their graves and those are meant to return to the earth, he said.