A cemetery concept presentation will be open to the public Jan. 8 as the process to restore a historic cemetery in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth proceeds more than two years after the grounds were disturbed by a state highway project.

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa will host the meeting at Black Bear Casino in Carlton, where landscape architects from Urban Ecosystems will lead the presentation.

The architects will present three concepts for the cemetery. The event will feature a dinner, followed by small- and large-group discussions with the public to gauge reaction and receive feedback. Both the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the band referred the News Tribune to the architects for comment.

“One of our big design perspectives was coming up with a way of stabilizing and protecting the site in a way that it won’t be disturbed again in the future,” said Samuel Geer, president of Urban Ecosystems based in St. Paul.

The site was disturbed in 2017 by heavy equipment earth moving at the start of a state Highway 23 bridge replacement project over Mission Creek.

The $3.1 million bridge project was scrubbed as the recovery of burial remains became the focus for the ensuing two years. The roughly milelong site has been exposed and blocked off ever since as laborers from the band worked to sift through roughly 160 dump trucks worth of soil in search of human remains, grave goods and other artifacts.

MnDOT declared burial recovery completed in October. At last tally, the burial recovery project had come in at $6 million.

The goal now is “to put everything back where it came from,” said a MnDOT spokesperson in August. It’s unclear what the costs will be and Geer declined to speculate.

He described the process as “an incredible honor,” one guided by listening, critical thinking and research into the neighborhood.

The area around the project is steeped in historical significance, with nearby islands once used as an encampment by indigenous people. Later, the neighborhood became a bustling trading post and site of a riverboat touring company. It also comes with a grim history of multiple cemetery disturbances.

“The St. Louis River estuary was like a mecca for the Ojibwe. You had everything you wanted there — fish, rice and so forth,” tribal environmental director Wayne Dupuis told the News Tribune last February.

MnDOT has taken responsibility for the most recent disturbance and repeatedly expressed its regret. After the cemetery is restored, it plans to reintroduce the bridge replacement project.

Geer outlined the three concepts for the reconstructed cemetery and said he expects the end result, following public input, will be a “fusion” of the three. Fond du Lac’s Reservation Business Council is charged with approval of the final design.

The three concepts Geer described:

  • One minimal and subdued.

  • Another more grand, creating usable spaces and displays of interpretive information.

  • One a balance of the first two.

“It’s such a rich and layered place where the project is,” Geer said. “We see our role in this as conducting a visioning process.”

Urban Ecosystems specializes in fusing the natural environment with cultural systems, Geer said, “in a way that is kind of mutually reinforcing — not separate but designed to be functioning together.”

Urban Ecosystems took up the work in August, and has taken part in one previous public meeting in October.

“We’re trying to focus first and foremost on what this place needs to be for the community and what to do to protect and make this a recognizable place for the Fond du Lac Band,” he said.

If you go

What: Mission Creek Cemetery Restoration Concept Design Presentation

When: 5:30-8:30 p.m., Jan. 8

  • Dinner, 5:30-6:15 p.m.

  • Design presentation and Q&A, 6:15-7 p.m.

  • Roundtable discussions, 7-7:45 p.m.

  • Community discussion, 7:45-8:30 p.m.

Where: Black Bear Casino, Otter Creek Events Center, 1785 Highway 210, Carlton

Cost: Free of charge