DULUTH — In 2017, yards from the site of an important Ojibwe treaty signing nearly 200 years earlier, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) disturbed Native American burial grounds as it worked to build a new bridge in Duluth's westernmost neighborhood.
On Friday, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa commemorated the completion of nearly five years of painstaking recovery efforts, in which more than 125 of its citizens and others sifted earth by hand to find remains of their ancestors. About 200 people gathered at Chambers Grove Park near the newly defined cemetery, which includes the desecrated burial grounds. It was a day to honor the work, offer closure and spend time in prayer. A long line of attendees snaked through the park, waiting to offer tobacco to a crackling fire.
Tribal Chairman Kevin Dupuis told the crowd that the work done to find and protect the deceased was hard on those who undertook it.
"You have to understand what they went home with every day was powerful," he said. "What they had to deal with was powerful."
MnDOT began work on replacing the Mission Creek bridge without consulting the Fond du Lac, stopping a couple of weeks after the band learned of the project from a local historian, Christine Carlson. Days later, human remains were found in the dirt already excavated. It wasn't the first time bodies were unearthed in the same area, where Anishinaabe had settled along the St. Louis River since the 1600s. Bodies found during railroad construction in 1869 were reburied at Roussain Cemetery in Jay Cooke State Park. Construction of Highway 23 also led to a cemetery disturbance in 1937.
Many Fond du Lac members are only four generations removed from those buried on the hill, about a block from the river, said Vern Northup, a citizen of the band.
"This location had everything they needed," he said, pointing to the river. "Food, fresh waterways, all the game they wanted. This was paradise for the Ojibwe."
With so much documented history, it's hard to accept that the state agency failed to consult with the tribe, he said, and it still feels "raw" to many.
"It's trauma, added onto trauma, added onto trauma. We are starting to get some closure, and this is a big step," Northrup said.
A construction project meant to cost about $2 million ballooned to a current estimate of $24.6 million, including recovery work and costs for the bridge that has yet to be built. It will be constructed in the same area in 2024, but work will avoid the cemetery. Fond du Lac will be involved.
"You can never correct the wrong of excavating the cemetery, but our goal was to do what we could to make it right," said Duane Hill, district engineer for the department's northeastern Minnesota office.
The desecration happened because of "a gap" in MnDOT's processes, Hill said, and today, it has a clear plan for coordinating with tribal governments. MnDOT now also works with tribal monitors, who oversee projects and stop work in real time if a bone is found. Fond du Lac now employs 17 cultural monitors working throughout the state. Skye Northbird, who spent three years on the Highway 23 project, is one of them.
"I wanted to bring my people home," she said, and that work led to a more permanent calling. She now monitors projects for companies throughout the region.
"I see changes," Northbird said. "It's not always easy, but there is a change, and it's why I like being out there — to make sure it happens."
As for the Fond du Lac neighborhood, a new, park-like cemetery lined with a stone wall along Highway 23 is nearly finished, and the band is now caretaker of that land.
The years of difficult collaboration with state agencies taught lessons to the band, said Roger M. Smith, a member of the tribal council.
"What we did was for Fond du Lac, but most importantly, it was for Indian Country," he said, as tribes that navigate similar desecrations can learn from them.
The commemoration day was chosen to align with the 168th anniversary of the signing of the 1854 Treaty and a day of remembrance for those who were victims or survivors of Native American boarding schools.
Indigenous graves aren't protected the way others are, Dupuis said, but all human beings have in common final ceremonies "to send our people home" to their resting places.
That's not what happened here, he said.
"For 530 years we've been told to stand by, [were[ set aside, pushed over, stepped over for progress," Dupuis said. "Hopefully … we can say we're not going to be disturbed anymore."