Mission Creek cemetery proposal hits its mark

Tribal members were pleased Wednesday with newer, simpler plans to restore the cemetery first disturbed by MnDOT project work in 2017.

Inside the Mission Creek cemetery would be a sacred space, the only place accessible by visitors in an otherwise reforested imagining of the cemetery. The final proposal of the planned reconstruction was unveiled at a public meeting Wednesday at Black Bear Casino. / Urban Ecosystems graphic image

Landscape architects in charge of designing and constructing the Mission Creek cemetery restoration hoped Wednesday's final public meeting would be a prelude to approval of their design. The early feedback seemed promising.

Christine Carlson, a historian of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, listed off her reactions to the proposed cemetery in the Fond du Lac neighborhood in Duluth: "Simple; not showy; culturally sensitive," she said.

"Oh, I love it," said Patti Goward, a member of a tribal elders committee involved in the restoration. "It's not overdone."

The proposal on display at Black Bear Casino Resort, and presented by the architects from Urban Ecosystems of St. Paul following a free supper, had been whittled down from three original choices. There were no gazebos or ostentatious structures in this iteration, only a stone border wall, a natural spring flowing through to Mission Creek and a reforested hillside cemetery that was first disrupted by Minnesota Department of Transportation crews in 2017 at the start of a state Highway 23 bridge replacement project.

"This is what we thought we heard," Randy Costley, project manager for MnDOT, said, referring to a public meeting in January. "The hope for tonight is that this is the final comment session before we see a vote."


The Reservation Business Council will have final say over the design. Spokesperson Rita Aspinwall said she expected the RBC would vote soon, within the next couple of weeks, after it hears feedback from the 50 or so people who attended the presentation.

The reconstruction project to recover burial remains, grave goods and artifacts is now "above $6 million," Costley said. Construction is expected to begin in the fall. Details of the reinterment process will be decided between the Fond du Lac Band and Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Costley said.

"We want the babies to be together," Goward said, speaking for the elders.

Meanwhile, MnDOT is expected to announce on Thursday a public meeting regarding rebooting the bridge replacement project. The meeting will be 6-7 p.m., Feb. 27, at the Gary New Duluth Rec Center, 801 101st Ave. W., MnDOT spokesperson Stephanie Christensen said. The Highway 23 bridge replacement over Mission Creek was ticketed to cost $3.1 million in 2017. The project was suspended and ultimately discontinued after burial remains were disturbed by heavy equipment digging that summer.

The renewed project is in the same cost neighborhood as the original, Costley said.

Regarding the cemetery, principal landscape architect John Koepke described the process that led to the mostly natural and sacred ground being presented: "We had a lot of positive feedback last time, but people also wanted us to simplify it and make it less public in nature," he said.

Gone are walkways in favor of a forested cemetery. Koepke said they'll have to plant small things that won't further disturb the grounds and will grow over time. He described smaller and larger trees and additional ground-cover vegetation that will be made up of native plants resistant to climate change.

The spring is currently routed through a pipe, and is proposed to be restored to a natural spring winding through the grounds until it empties into Mission Creek. Sources described the spring as a healthy one that figures to feature water year-round.


"They wanted us to treat the water with respect," Koepke said. "They didn't want any paths crossing the water. This (proposal) is in line with the Ojibwe worldview."

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