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)