Tribe approves Mission Creek cemetery design

The process to restore the cemetery will begin this fall.

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

Final design approval came last week to restore an indigenous cemetery disturbed in 2017 by a state bridge replacement project over Mission Creek.

The Reservation Business Council for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa approved the plan Feb. 26 for the burial ground located in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood.

The landscape architects behind the project, Urban Ecosystems of St. Paul, announced the approval Monday.

"We are excited that the community reaction to our design changes and community process has been positive and are working hard to keep things moving quickly," Samuel Geer, president of Urban Ecosystems, said.

Tribal members influenced the design during two rounds of public meetings, saying overwhelmingly that they wanted something simple.


Since the desecration, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has been working collaboratively with the Fond du Lac Band, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the Office of the State Archaeologist with a goal of restoring burial remains in a reconstructed cemetery. Work could be completed in 2020, MnDOT project manager Randy Costley said.

"The schedule for this work is aggressive and we are hoping to complete work before freeze-up," Costley said. "However, depending on weather, it could be forced to carry over into the next season."

Mission Creek burial site.jpg

The architects' concept featured a border wall inclusive of a forested cemetery with few markings. The design would also restore a natural spring currently piped underground.

Ultimately, the hillside cemetery that was disturbed will be replanted to grow over time with both smaller and larger trees, and additional ground-cover vegetation made up of native plants resistant to climate change.

The tribal council also requested that a structure and space be built near the proposed new access road turnaround that will be 134th Street West. The short road is being constructed by MnDOT this summer, and will replace West Fourth Street, which is being abandoned since it crosses through the existing burial ground.

The additional design and planning process for a structure at the end of the road will be considered a separate phase of the project, the architects said.


It could be included into mitigation costs budgeted for as part of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's $20 million budget overall . Since the project began as a bridge replacement of Minnesota Highway 23 over Mission Creek, costs have risen sharply due to extensive recovery work.

District engineer Duane Hill, MnDOT's top official in Duluth, said he budgeted $2 million for mitigation.

"It's an important step," he said in February, describing a federally mandated action required when historic properties are disturbed. "We're going to have to document (publicly) the cemetery and other cultural properties in the area of impact."

There may also be recovery work yet to do this summer on stockpiles of soil created when excavation started in 2017. The piles are outside the central cemetery site where recovery work for burial remains, grave goods and artifacts was completed last year.

The Reservation Business Council also approved a request that a Fond du Lac community member be appointed to co-lead the interpretive design process, with Urban Ecosystems to determine the final messaging and form that the messages at the cemetery will have.

The architectural design team is in the process of developing construction-level design plans. Final design plans are scheduled to be completed in time to put the project out to bid in July. Mid-September would be about the earliest that landscaping work could begin, Costley said.

The bridge replacement project has been restarted as well, with hopes of construction no later than 2024. The estimated $4.2 million project has already been the subject of one public meeting in February.

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