Final design approval came last week to restore an indigenous cemetery disrupted in 2017 by a state bridge replacement project over Mission Creek.
The Commercial Reservation Board for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa approved the plan on Feb. 26 for the cemetery located in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth.
The landscape architects behind the project, Urban Ecosystems of St. Paul, announced the approval on Monday.
“We are delighted that the community reaction to our design changes and our community process has been positive and we are working hard to move things along quickly,” said Samuel Geer, president of Urban Ecosystems.
Tribal members influenced the design during two rounds of town hall meetings, overwhelmingly saying they wanted something simple.
Since the desecration, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has been working with the Fond du Lac Band, the Minnesota Council of Indian Affairs, and the Office of the State Archaeologist with the goal of restoring the burial remains to a reconstructed cemetery. Work could be completed in 2020, said MnDOT project manager Randy Costley.
“The schedule for this work is aggressive and we hope to complete the work before the freeze,” Costley said. “However, depending on the weather, he might be forced to carry over to next season.”
The architects’ concept featured a border wall including a wooded cemetery with few markings. The design would also restore a natural spring currently channeled underground.
Ultimately, the hillside graveyard that was disturbed will be replanted to grow over time with smaller and larger trees, and additional cover vegetation made up of climate-resistant native plants.
The Tribal Council has also requested that a structure and space be constructed near the proposed new access road which will be West 134th Street. The short road is being built by the MnDOT this summer and will replace West Fourth Street, which is abandoned because it crosses the existing cemetery.
The additional design and planning process for a structure at the end of the road will be considered a separate phase of the project, the architects said.
It could be included in budgeted mitigation costs as part of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s overall $20 million budget. Since the project began with the replacement of a Minnesota Highway 23 bridge over Mission Creek, costs have risen sharply due to extensive salvage work.
District Engineer Duane Hill, a senior MnDOT official in Duluth, said he has budgeted $2 million for mitigation.
“This is an important step,” he said in February, outlining federally mandated action required when historic properties are disturbed. “We are going to have to (publicly) document the cemetery and other cultural assets in the impact area.”
There may also still be salvage work to be done this summer on the piles of dirt created when excavation began in 2017. The piles are outside the Central Cemetery site where the recovery of grave remains, grave goods and artifacts was completed last year.
The Reservation Business Council has also approved a request to appoint a member of the Fond du Lac community to co-lead the interpretive design process, with Urban Ecosystems to determine the final message and form that the messages at the cemetery will have.
The architectural design team is developing construction-level design plans. Final design plans are expected to be completed in time to put the project up for competition in July. Mid-September would be about the earliest landscaping work could begin, Costley said.
The bridge replacement project has also been revived, with hopes of construction no later than 2024. The estimated $4.2 million project was already the subject of a public meeting in February.