Indigenous remains found during Twin Ports Interchange construction
Work has stopped in the immediate area. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and tribal nations may do additional archaeological work there.
DULUTH — Human remains, determined to be Indigenous, were found during construction of the Twin Ports Interchange, pausing work in one area of the project.
The Duluth Police Department responded Feb. 14 to the report of a "possible human bone” in a construction area of the Lincoln Park neighborhood where U.S. Highway 53 is being rebuilt, Duluth Police Department spokesperson Mattie Hjelseth said in an email to the News Tribune.
“An archaeologist was on scene when officers arrived and the archaeologist stated the bone is a partial jaw bone. The medical examiner's office was consulted. The Fond du Lac Band was advised and collected the bone,” Hjelseth said, citing the incident report.
Officials from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other state agencies interviewed by the News Tribune on Thursday were intentionally vague about what was found and where it was found, citing state and federal laws.
“As a result of a MnDOT-related project, culturally sensitive material has been found,” said Dylan Goetsch, the field investigator for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, a state agency, adding that the find triggered Minnesota’s Private Cemeteries Act and the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Goetsch said this is the only such find during the massive, multi-year project on Interstate 35, U.S. Highway 53 and Interstate 535 at the interchange formerly nicknamed the “Can of Worms." Construction work began in 2020 and ramped up in 2021.
Additionally, nothing was found during the highway’s original construction, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.
“To our knowledge, there hasn’t been any sort of records that anyone has been able to find that previous construction work identified any burials or disturbed any burials in this area,” Goetsch said.
Duane Hill, district engineer for the MnDOT, said the discovery triggered the project’s “Unanticipated Discovery Plan,” which was developed ahead of construction with consultation of Ojibwe and Dakota nations. “So when the sensitive cultural material was discovered, we implemented that plan,” Hill said.
Under the plan, work in that area stops to avoid additional burial disturbances, security is bolstered and the proper agencies and tribal nations are informed of the find.
Hill said crews working at that specific site have moved to other locations in the sprawling Twin Ports Interchange project.
It is not yet known if the discovery will change the project timeline or design.
“We don’t know how this is going to impact our project schedule,” Hill said.
Work on I-35 and the Garfield Interchange will finish this fall while the Highway 53 bridge is scheduled, as of now, for completion in fall 2024. Reconstruction of nearby local streets will wrap up in 2025.
Goetsch said whenever human remains are found, the first thing to do is to work with law enforcement to determine whether it's a crime scene. He said his office is brought in if it’s determined not to be a crime scene and it’s clear that it is “a settler or American Indian.”
Studying the layer of soil the remains are found in and any surrounding artifacts will help narrow things further.
“At this point, it’s clear that the burial is American Indian,” Goetsch said. “And so when that happens, my office then kind of jointly takes the lead.”
Additional archaeological work may be completed to determine if there are other burial sites or artifacts nearby.
In doing so, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council will work alongside MnDOT, State Archaeologist Amanda Gronhovd’s office and tribal nations, like the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, or other tribal nations in Minnesota.
“We’re working with a number of tribal communities to see who can help facilitate this work to make sure it’s done appropriately and whatnot,” Goetsch said.
A spokesperson for the Fond du Lac Band did not respond to News Tribune inquiries.
Any artifacts or human remains will be repatriated to “their appropriate tribal community or nation,” Goetsch said.
Human remains have been found at several recent road construction sites in Duluth.
A burial ground was disturbed by crews after MnDOT failed to consult with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior prior to the start of the Minnesota Highway 23 bridge replacement project over Mission Creek in the Fond du Lac neighborhood.
And in 2018, several empty, lidless wood coffins and possible human bones were found along Arlington Avenue during a planned archaeological exploratory ahead of a St. Louis County road project in the area.
The items are assumed to be remnants left behind during a 1960s grave relocation project involving nearby Greenwood Cemetery, where about 5,000 people from the St. Louis County Poor Farm were buried from 1891-1947.