MnDOT stops Duluth bridge construction after human remains discovered

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has stopped construction on a new bridge in far western Duluth after the discovery of human remains.

The remains were discovered after the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa expressed concerns to MnDOT because an access road needed for the Highway 23 project crosses a historic Indian cemetery and settlement near the St. Louis River in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood.

State and tribal archaeologists now plan to conduct a full study of the site. MnDOT then will assess the situation in conjunction with the band, the city of Duluth and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, before determining next steps on the $2.9 million project that began May 15.

"The Band is deeply disappointed that these agencies did not uphold their legal obligation to protect a sacred site," Band Chairman Kevin Dupuis, Sr., said in a statement.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

MnDOT project manager Roberta Dwyer said the department received all the required permits before beginning construction.

"Unfortunately, despite all the reviews that were done, this did not show up in any of the studies that were done by the agencies," Dwyer said.

MnDOT did not consult directly with the Fond du Lac Band, Dwyer added.

State and tribal archaeologists plan to begin a detailed study of the site in the next few days, Dwyer said.

The project is now on hold until that work is complete.

"We are here to work in the spirit of cooperation to resolve this issue," Dwyer said. "Not only to take the appropriate actions at the existing site, but also after that is resolved, to have a lesson learned in this. It is our intent to continue to work together in a cooperative manner so this will never ever happen again."

Burial sites in the area have been desecrated twice before, according to the Fond du Lac Band. First in the 1800s when a railroad was constructed, and again in 1937 when Highway 23 was first constructed.

"For over 100 years, the Band's cemeteries and historic sites have been desecrated by poorly planned development," Fond du Lac Chairman Kevin Dupuis said. "It's still happening today. This is wrong. It needs to stop."

Correction (June 9, 2017): A previous version of this story gave an incorrect location of the bridge under construction. The story has been updated.

Correction (June 9, 2017): An earlier version of this story reported incorrect information on the project's approval process.