DULUTH - Construction on part of the $435 million Twin Ports Interchange project in the Lincoln Park neighborhood has been stalled for nearly a month with the discovery of a human jawbone that's believed to be Indigenous remains.
A fenced-in area with snow-covered dirt mounds and abandoned construction beams was quiet on Friday afternoon. For now, contractors with the Minnesota Department of Transportation's yearslong, multiphase project have shifted to other parts of the "Can of Worms" reconstruction, MnDOT spokeswoman Pippi Mayfield confirmed.
There is a project-specific plan in place for discoveries like this. Construction workers and others involved are directed to immediately contact the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council or the Office of the State Archaeologist when there is an "unanticipated discovery," depending on what is found, Mayfield said. That is what they did with this find.
The Duluth Police Department responded to a Feb. 14 call to the site after a bone was discovered. When they got there, an archaeologist at the scene described the find as a human jawbone, according to Mattie Hjelseth, public information officer for the department.
"The Medical Examiner's Office was consulted," she said. "The Fond du Lac Band was advised and collected the bone."
It's unclear how it was determined to be Indigenous bones.
Fond du Lac Band directed questions to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which did not return messages.
The Twin Ports Interchange project is a plan to revamp the intersections of Interstate 35, I-535 and Hwy. 53 in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, an area that sees heavy loads pass between the Duluth port and the Iron Range. Work is expected to continue into 2025.
Linda LeGarde Grover, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, has ties to the neighborhood dating to her great-great grandparents. The author and professor emeritus from the University of Minnesota Duluth wrote about the area in her 2021 collection of short stories, "Gichigami Hearts."
She is not surprised that the remains were found in the spot — but it doesn't necessarily mean it was a large gravesite. This wasn't a village before development, but there were definitely people living there before the settlers, she said.
"When people died long ago, they were not necessarily placed in a particular burial ground or cemetery," she said. "It could be that this is a site where a number of people's bodies were buried."
This is not the first time a construction project has unearthed a gravesite in the region.
Human remains were found in excavated dirt in 2017 while MnDOT was in the process of replacing the Mission Creek Bridge in far west Duluth — a spot along the St. Louis River where Anishinaabe people had settled since the 1600s and where bodies had been discovered during railroad construction in 1869 and Hwy. 23 roadwork in 1937. The state agency had not consulted with Fond du Lac, a gap in procedure that has since been addressed. MnDOT now works with tribal monitors who stop work if a bone is found.
After five years and the work of 125 citizens sifting through the earth by hand, the Fond du Lac Reservation completed its recovery efforts and celebrated a newly defined cemetery, including the desecrated burial grounds, in October. The bridge is scheduled for construction near that area, but avoiding the cemetery, in 2024.