MnDOT Apologizes for Disturbing Burial Ground, More Remains Found

Baihly Warfield
June 15, 2017 12:45 AM

Several Fond du Lac band members were in tears Wednesday night as they learned more human remains have been found at the Hwy 23 construction site near 133rd Avenue West. 

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MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle and local MnDOT officials had a public meeting to answer questions about what construction workers found and where they go from here. 

"No question, disturbing the sacred ground, burial sites, was incredibly horrific," Zelle told a crowd of nearly 100 at the Fond du Lac Community Church. 

Zelle, Jim Jones with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and Fond du Lac Chairman Kevin Dupuis went to the site before the meeting. 

"We found a piece of the cranium, from the back above the spine," Dupuis said. "So it's real. And we want everybody to understand that it is real."

Jones said there was a historic item found close by remains that would be something you normally see in an Ojibwe burial. 

Zelle said seeing it himself resonated. But he can't undo the digging. 

"Really, on behalf of the agency and behalf of our state of Minnesota, I'm really here to apologize. I'm so sorry," Zelle said. "I can't take it back, but we can learn from what we're doing. We can do the right thing."

He said they halted construction as soon as the Fond du Lac band notified them about the burial ground. Roberta Dwyer with MnDOT said that was on May 26. MnDOT reports the first remains were found June 5. 

"We're not here to take anybody's jobs away or stop a project in that manner," Dupuis said about stopping the roadwork. "We understand that everybody has a life to live to take care of their family. And we encourage everybody, try to understand it."

On June 9, bone fragments were sent to Hamline University for analysis, but Jones said they don't allow any invasive testing. They will basically find out if the remains are male or female and adult or child. 

Zelle called the discovery "incredibly horrific." He said MnDOT had good intentions, but takes responsibility. 

"The Fond du Lac band has been remarkably understanding, but remarkably hurt," Zelle said. 

The project was entirely funded by the state. Planning began five years ago, after the 2012 floods. Historian Christine Carlson said, "The band should be involved." 

"This is an old Indian village," Carlson said. "Hundreds of years old."

In fact, a book she wrote on Fond du Lac's history includes three photos dating back to the 1800s. The first photo shows several spirit boxes, Carlson pointed out. She said the burial site has been desecrated several times, when the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad came through and when houses were built. 

Highway 23 was built in 1932, and burial sites also may have been dug up then. 

Other people at the meeting also questioned when water lines were built in the area and whether remains may have been disturbed then as well. One person said they feel invisible to the state. 

There is a discussion about putting a permanent plaque or marker in the area so there is never another question about the historic significance. 

"That's our ancestors that have been moved from a site where we just found another cranium piece," Dupuis said. 

MnDOT hired an archaeology firm to do further site analysis and said Fond du Lac conservation officers will provide 24/7 security to make sure nothing more is disturbed. They say they have also covered some areas and added stabilizing material to curb erosion since the area is prone to flooding. 

MnDOT said it will host future public meetings to provide updates on how the project and discoveries are progressing. 


Baihly Warfield

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