Treading lightly: Non-intrusive methods used to chart Ojibwe burial grounds

For over a month, people wearing neon safety vests have repeatedly inched their way across broken ground in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood, using technology to survey what's beneath their feet.

Mike Wise (left) and Bobby Fischer (right) use ground-penetrating radar under the supervision of Dave Maki on July 14 on West Third Street in Duluth. GPR is one of the non-intrusive archaeological methods being used to determine the boundaries of Indian burial grounds. Mike Krebs /
Mike Wise (left) and Bobby Fischer (right) use ground-penetrating radar under the supervision of Dave Maki on July 14 on West Third Street in Duluth. GPR is one of the non-intrusive archaeological methods being used to determine the boundaries of Indian burial grounds. Mike Krebs /
We are part of The Trust Project.

For over a month, people wearing neon safety vests have repeatedly inched their way across broken ground in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood, using technology to survey what's beneath their feet.

It's all part of a process experts use to map sites of archaeological significance - though it's a process they prefer to use before, not after, development begins on a site holding cultural resources.

But that didn't happen before a Minnesota Department of Transportation construction project disturbed sacred burial grounds of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. In fact, MnDOT failed to consult with the band prior to construction at all.

On May 26, MnDOT halted a construction project along Minnesota Highway 23 at Mission Creek after the band informed transportation officials they had disturbed gravesites. Jeff Savage, the director of the Fond du Lac Band's cultural center and museum, said the oversight is inexcusable.

"There's no excuse whatsoever for MnDOT not knowing that that site was historical. Time and time again, mainstream culture just denies the reality," Savage said. "You're going to get nothing but anger and disgust out of me because it happens time after time."


It's not the first time construction work disturbed the burial grounds. In 1869, railroad construction unearthed bodies at Mission Creek that later were reburied at the Roussain Cemetery in what's now Jay Cooke State Park. The initial construction of Highway 23 disturbed the grounds again, in 1937.

Now, in the wake of the latest damage, geophysicists and archaeologists are using a variety of methods at the site to recover the remains and determine the extent of the cemetery, said Jim Jones, the lead archaeologist for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.

MnDOT has hired both an archaeology and geophysics firm from Minneapolis to help identify and recover the remains under the oversight of Jones. Both firms continue to train and hire tribal members and other local residents to help with the work.

MnDOT hosted an open house on June 14 and answered questions about the steps they would take in the recovery process.

"No question, disturbing the sacred burial sites was an incredibly horrific event," MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle told a crowd at that event. "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."

People in attendance inquired about the processes archaeologists and geophysicists would use to assess the site and recover the remains.

"Please, please, please, treat them with respect," one woman told officials at the open house.

In the disturbance of unplatted burial grounds, state law requires that the Indian Affairs Council assume leadership in the recovery process if the state archaeologist determines that the human remains are of Native American origin. Tribal leadership must then receive possession of all remains for disposition.


"I am working in collaboration with the Fond du Lac Band and tribal elders and community members to make sure that it is done in the most respectful and best way possible," Jones said of the research and recovery work, at the open house in June.

MnDOT continues to cooperate with the band, the Indian Affairs Council and the Office of the State Archaeologist during regular meetings. The agency plans to host a second open house at a date yet to be determined.

Jones hosted a two-day cultural resources training session earlier this month where he explained the relevant laws and shared replica artifacts - objects they would expect to find in the recovery effort.

Eleven people attended the training session, 10 of whom belonged to the Fond du Lac Band. Jones said the training allows band members to help in the current project if they choose, while preparing them for future projects.

"That went great," he said of the training session. Additional training for band members will soon be scheduled.

Non-intrusive methods

During his 30-plus years of working in archaeology, Jones has watched the growth of non-intrusive technologies in assessing historic sites.

Dave Maki of Archaeo-Physics, LLC in Minneapolis said the technologies have caught on for a reason.


"It's non-intrusive as opposed to traditional archaeology approaches," Maki said of methods such as electrical resistivity and ground penetrating radar. "We can learn something about the archeology without disturbing it and learn something about the cultural significance."

Electrical resistivity is often used when mapping sites of archaeological significance. Maki and Andrew Wise, a Duluth resident Maki often hires, were two of those figures in neon safety vests who have spent weeks toeing at least 2,000 square meters of the historic burial ground's surface.

Every 25 centimeters, Maki and Wise moved the electrical resistivity meter and poked its two metal stakes about a centimeter into the soil. The stakes on the end of the instrument injected an electrical current into the ground to measure the resistivity of the material, or how difficult it is for electricity to move through an area in the ground.

An area of higher resistivity will show up darker on a map charting the data, Maki said, while less-resistant material will show up lighter.

Maki compares his data to how the known location of a remain appears when it's surveyed, and from that he can get a good idea of what is beneath the surface.

Maki said he almost always uses a second form of technology to verify the results of the first. At Mission Creek, his team used ground-penetrating radar.

GPR transmits a high-frequency radio signal into the ground while recording the time it takes for a reflected signal to return. This indicates a target's depth and location in the ground.

On a morning in July, one crew member slowly wheeled a box containing the radar antenna along the ground while another crew member watched as the data came in on the attached computer screen a few feet away.

On that particular morning, Maki had help from two crew members as they surveyed a 50-meter stretch of road surface. Maki likes to "oversample" to improve the data, he said. Every two centimeters the GPR equipment transmits a pulse into the ground, but each transmission averages eight readings per pulse. He calls it data-stacking.

Maki has had three men from the Leech Lake Reservation working with him, all of whom have experience with burial recovery and archaeological work, he said - experience they can use to help mentor others.

The archaeological process

Under Minnesota's Field Archaeology Act, state-owned land is subject to an archaeological survey before construction in order to preserve and protect archaeological matter.

"That's another statute that was kind of missed on this project because it should have had an extensive archaeological review and even a records review," Jones said.

Archaeologists refer to this first review as a Phase One survey because it provides a historical overview and answers whether or not the ground holds archaeological material before a project begins. Projects that use federal money or are on state land require a Phase One survey.

Sigrid Arnott of Sigrid Arnott Consulting, the Minneapolis-based archaeological firm MnDOT hired this summer, specializes in such surveys and is now serving on-site as the principal investigator. Although she does not do the geophysical work, Arnott often works with geophysicists, including Archaeo-Physics, because the science can inform archaeologists where historical objects are located.

She describes her role as the facilitator of all the project's moving parts.

"It's like building a forensics case," Arnott said. "It's not like you get one source of information that solves it all. You have so many parts to the puzzle, but every time we use a method, it gives us a little more information."

Project officials do not yet know when the project nor the Phase One survey will reach completion, but archaeologists and trained band members will recover the remains for the band to then rebury properly.

For Arnott, this project differs from her other archaeological work. Instead of pursuing a research question, she said, the crew is guiding its decisions based on the band's long-term needs.

"It's probably going to help in the future on other sites," Arnott said. "We're developing new scientific methods, and I think everyone is excited about that. It could have a positive effect in the future, or an outcome that would help other people."

Ojibwe occupied

Fond du Lac Band member Matthew Northrup said he was 10 when his father showed him the burial grounds at Mission Creek for the first time. Northrup is the son of the late Jim Northrup, who was a renowned author and Ojibwe traditionalist. He showed a young Matthew the location of his ancestors.

Now whenever Matthew Northrup drives past the site on Highway 23, he rolls down his window and performs the sacred ritual of burning tobacco.

"I've known forever that there are graves here," he said while visiting the site. "I just didn't know this project was happening."

A couple blocks east of the burial site on Highway 23 sits a historical marker that notes "this was the site of a major Chippewa Indian settlement from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries."

To the northwest, on the other side of Jay Cooke State Park, sits the Fond du Lac Reservation created by the Treaty of 1854 ceded much of the Ojibwe-occupied Arrowhead region to the federal government for mining use.

The area now known as the Fond du Lac neighborhood in Duluth, along the St. Louis River, has served as Ojibwe gathering grounds since the 1600s, but Native Americans started occupying the area thousands of years before.

"A lot of people think Indian Country is only on reservations, but no, this is all Indian," Northrup said as he waved his hand across the entire landscape in front of him.

What to read next
Former Duluth and Wichita police chief Gordon Ramsay is asking that Wichita change its policy to make citizen complaints against city employees public, as well as the findings of related investigations and any discipline handed down.
The Fargo-based company will make its first expansion into the Sioux Falls television market, which covers roughly half of South Dakota and parts of Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.