Indigenous human remains found at site of major highway project in Duluth

DULUTH, Minn. — Human remains, determined to be indigenous, were found during construction of the Twin Harbors Intersection, interrupting work in one area of ​​the project.

The Duluth Police Department responded Feb. 14 to a report of “a possible human bone” in a construction zone in the Lincoln Park neighborhood where US 53 is being rebuilt, said Duluth Police Department spokeswoman Mattie Hjelseth , in an email to the Duluth News Tribune.

“An archaeologist was at the scene when officers arrived and the archaeologist stated that the bone was a partial jaw bone. The forensic medical office was consulted. The Fond du Lac Band was advised and collected the bone,” Hjelseth said, citing the incident report.

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other state agencies interviewed Thursday by the News Tribune were intentionally vague about what was found and where it was found, citing state and federal laws.

“As a result of a project related to MnDOT, culturally sensitive material was found,” said Dylan Goetsch, field investigator for the Minnesota Board of Indian Affairs, a state agency, adding that the discovery triggered the Cemeteries Act Minnesota private and federal Native law. American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Goetsch said this is the only such discovery during a massive, multi-year project on Interstate 35, US 53 and Interstate 535 at the interchange formerly known as the “Can of Worms.” Construction work began in 2020 and continued into 2021.

Additionally, nothing was found during the highway’s original construction, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.

“To our knowledge, there has been no record of anyone finding that previous construction work has identified any burials or disturbed any burials in this area,” Goetsch said.

Duane Hill, district engineer for MnDOT, said the discovery triggered the project’s “Unanticipated Discovery Plan,” which was developed prior to construction with consultation from the Ojibwe and Dakota nations.

“So when the culturally sensitive material was discovered, we implemented that plan,” Hill said.

Under the plan, work in that area stops to avoid further burial disturbances, security is beefed up, and relevant agencies and tribal nations are notified of the discovery.

Hill said crews working at that particular site have moved to other locations in the expanded Twin Ports interchange project.

It is not yet known whether the discovery will change the project’s timeline or design.

“We don’t know how this will impact our project schedule,” Hill said.

Work on I-35 and the Garfield Interchange will be completed this fall, while the Highway 53 bridge is currently scheduled for completion in the fall of 2024. Reconstruction of nearby local streets will be completed in 2025.

Goetsch said whenever human remains are found, the first thing to do is work with law enforcement to determine if it’s a crime scene. He said his office is brought in if it’s determined it’s not a crime scene and it’s clear it’s “a settler or an American Indian.”

Studying the layer of soil where the remains are found and any surrounding artifacts will help narrow it down further.

“At this point, it’s clear that the burial is American Indian,” Goetsch said. “And when that happens, my office takes the lead.”

Additional archaeological work may be completed to determine if there are other burial sites or artifacts nearby.

In this regard, the Minnesota Council of Indian Affairs will work with MnDOT, the office of State Archaeologist Amanda Gronhovd, and tribal nations, such as the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, or other Minnesota tribal nations.

“We’re working with a number of tribal communities to see who can help facilitate this work to make sure it’s done properly and whatnot,” Goetsch said.

A spokesman for the Fond du Lac band did not respond to questions from the News Tribune.

Any artifacts or human remains will be repatriated “to the appropriate tribal community or nation,” Goetsch said.

Human remains have been found at several recent road construction sites in Duluth.

A cemetery was disturbed by crews after MnDOT failed to consult with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior before the Minnesota Highway 23 bridge replacement project over Mission Creek in the Fond du Lac neighborhood began.

And in 2018, several empty, lidless wooden coffins and possible human bones were found along Arlington Avenue during a planned archaeological dig ahead of a road project in St. Louis in the area.

The items are believed to be remains left behind during a 1960s grave relocation project involving nearby Greenwood Cemetery, where about 5,000 people from the St. Louis were buried between 1891-1947.

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