MnDOT apologizes for desecrating cemetery in bridge project’s way

It’s not hard to figure out why the Minnesota Department of Transportation desecrated a cemetery when working on Minnesota Highway 23. MnDOT says in five years of planning for the replacement of the Mission Creek Bridge in Duluth, there was no part of the process that called for consulting with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, even though the area is historic, the Duluth News Tribune reports today.

“No question, disturbing the sacred burial sites was an incredibly horrific event,” MnDOT Commissioner Charles A. Zelle told a meeting at the Fond du Lac Community Church last night. “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.”

Band members suggest that’s the problem. The state is just beginning to understand the nature of these things.

“I’m beginning to think we do not matter to you,” said band member Matthew Northrup.

The work was halted late last month after historian Christine Carlson noticed the construction and knew the site was a burial site for Anishinaabe people since at least the 1600s. Two weeks later, human remains were found at the site.

“Do I believe our ancestors are spread all over the road somewhere? Probably,” Fond du Lac Band Chairman Kevin Dupuis said. “But we can’t change that now. What we can change is that this doesn’t happen again.”

This isn’t the first time construction has disturbed Fond du Lac graveyards, said Carlson, who uses old newspaper clippings to help track the history. The first instance occurred in 1869 when the construction of the railroad unearthed bodies that were reburied at Roussain Cemetery. The second instance occurred in 1937 during the initial construction of Highway 23. Initially, MnDOT had stated that the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), which currently operates under the Minnesota Historical Society, also had to “approve” the plans. This isn’t entirely accurate, said Jessa Kohen, public relations manager for the historical society. Instead the role of SHPO is to consult with federal and state agencies when requested.

“In this case, SHPO was asked by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review the bridge replacement portion of the road project only,” Kohen wrote in an email to the News Tribune. “SHPO was not given an opportunity to review and consult with MnDOT on the Highway 23 reconstruction plans in their entirety.”

If I were to drive a backhoe through your cemetery, I would be arrested, I would be in jail,” Dupuis said. “That’s the bottom line.”

More cemetery news: Iowa’s unique ‘cemetery in the middle of the road’ damaged by hit-and-run driver (Des Moines Register)

  • Gary F

    It takes a lot of surveying and plan review to build a road or bridge.

    I don’t know how well this area is marked or documented on civil maps, but I find it hard to believe it was missed.

    How do you make a claim on the errors and omissions insurance for this one?

  • Jeff

    The only change to roadways in the project besides some road removal is a realignment of a small frontage road that goes to two houses.
    Looking at aerial view of the area that the new connection crosses, there’d be no way to know it was a burial ground. The project is also quite a ways from the current Fond Du Lac reservation so it’s unlikely the possibility even crossed the mind of any project engineers/planners who tend to look only at stakeholders in the immediate area of the project. I suppose they should have reached out directly with the tribe since the possibility of sacred sites from pre-European settlement era exists around there but once it made it through the SHPO process they probably didn’t even think of it. It’s not that big of a project and had the frontage road not changed, there wouldn’t have been any issue. I’m not excusing the oversight, but I don’t think it was some big intentional desecration either. I’m pretty certain MnDOT won’t make that mistake again.

    • I don’t think anybody suggested it was intentional.

      • Jeff

        The comments “I’m beginning to think we do not matter to you” and “If I were to drive a backhoe through your cemetery” suggested that to me. Maybe I took them the wrong way.

        • They’re asserting negligence and referring to a process that didn’t include talking to the tribe and questions about whether MnDOT takes these sorts of things seriously.

          Native Americans are not without really good and ongoing reasons to wonder that.

          • Jeff

            Right. But I’m wondering why it would be a given to talk to the tribe as part of such a minor project. Should that become mandatory with all projects in the Duluth area? I’m looking at it as a project engineer. If I’m changing a small frontage road (effectively a driveway) and I’ve talked to those directly impacted by that road and I’ve followed all historical review requirements, why is it a given that I should go talk to the tribe that is not currently located near my project? I’m not questioning it because I don’t think it should have happened, I just don’t know why some MnDOT engineer would even know to go there. I do think both parties will now work together to come up with a better process so these types of things don’t happen in the future so I guess that’s good.

          • Barton

            But according to the historian, Carlson, this was a known burial site. And as such, at least in my opinion, this should have been checked prior to the construction for verification. Maybe not reach out to the tribe (just like you wouldn’t reach out to a family of farmers about whether or not there used to be a family plot on a tract of land the DoT was going through), but check the land records, check with academia/scholars, look at old maps. That due diligence should be part of any construction project….

          • Jeff

            According to ‘A’ historian intimately familiar with the area and not associated with MnDOT. And known burial site to who? Obviously not MnDOT and obviously not the adjacent landowners or any other immediate stakeholders. How far out do you go if there’s nothing to make you think there’s an issue? The reality is the due diligence that you describe is done on most large new construction or expansion projects when the threshold for an EAW or EIS is triggered. This was basically a maintenance project. It simply raises the profile of an existing road and replaces an existing bridge. The problem portion, the frontage road realignment, is simply not going to get the same due diligence. At least up until now. I’m guessing they may think twice moving forward.

          • They did have five years of planning, apparently.

  • Al

    The state has a long, LONG way to go to ensure tribes are included–much less welcomed–in its planning and initiatives.

  • Guest

    What it will take is to survey all tribes here today AND those that were here but left what areas MIGHT be impacted by future development. With a total map of “possible sacred sites” at least the questions could start.

    I am sure there have been many family plots on the prairie forgotten once the family moved away. No way to avoid that. But to know “if in this area ask this tribal representative for further info”, would be very useful.