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At Issue: Unearthing the state’s past

Published (5/8/2009)
By Sonja Hegman
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During the May 5 meeting of the House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division, Garry Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for Change, expressed his displeasure with the way heritage funds are proposed to be spent. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)The accidental unearthing of remains of American Indians has become a rather common occurrence in the state.

This according to Annamarie Hill and Jim Jones, executive director and cultural resource director, respectively, at the Indian Affairs Council.

“I bring forward the voice of the American Indian people, the voices of the past, our ancestors that lay within the grounds,” Jones said during testimony before the House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division this session on how the constitutional legacy money should be spent. “Ancestors that keep getting accidentally unearthed, excavated, removed. Remains that are turned over to us almost every month. Boxes, skeletal remains, partial remains. Things that we deal with on a day-to-day basis at the Indian Affairs Council.”

Jones said the council did an inventory of the remains left in its collection, and the result is close to 550 remains, with 186 of those remains ready to “go back tomorrow if the tribes in the southwest (area of the state) came forward.” But, he said, there’s a process the council still has to go through to get one tribe to agree to take the remains, meaning the tribe needs to have a place to rebury the remains and it doesn’t.

The Indian Affairs Council is requesting money from the constitutional legacy fund be used to supplement what it does already for the state under the private cemeteries act and under a mandated, unfunded federal law.

Sponsored by Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown), HF1231 would provide that new sales tax revenues be deposited in four dedicated funds, under the legacy amendment adopted onto the state’s constitution last year. It increases the state’s sales tax from 6.5 percent to 6.875 percent.

Jones said they are looking to the constitutional legacy fund to allocate money to the preservation and identification of burial sites and to create a program for more immediate response and recovery of accidental unearthings to assist landowners.

Proposed funding for the Indian Affairs Council in the bill is $250,000 for the 2010-2011 biennium.

The process of recovering remains is quite arduous with the council having to go out to recover the remains and then determine what tribe the remains belong to. “The cuts proposed by the governor will affect this,” Jones said.

In the past 10 years, there have been 12 to 15 accidental unearthings. Jones said the average is one or two per year, but that doesn’t include what the council gets from various individuals, adding that one woman gave them remains she found in 1960.

Also, a few years ago Becker County had 17 bodies found in one spot.

“Each case is unique,” Jones said, talking of the reburial process. “The ones in Becker County went back to the same spot.” But some found last summer near Mille Lacs are still out of the ground. Jones said the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe will probably have to find room somewhere else for those remains because there’s a sewer line that goes through the burial mound where they were found.

The guts

Murphy’s bill moved through the process quickly this week, being passed by the House Finance Committee, the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee. It now awaits action on the House floor. There is no Senate companion.

The four newly created funds will go toward wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and trails, and arts and culture.

Murphy said the bill is the result of weeks of testimony about the potential impact of the money over the next 25 years, especially in the face of an economic downturn.

“One of the most moving learning experiences we had was the night when the four historians talked about the WPA projects in Minnesota, and the effect it had in Minnesota,” Murphy said. “We looked at this money from that point on as a kind of a stimulus for the economy in Minnesota.”

Murphy says the bill provides a plan to guide the distribution of the legacy amendment money over the 25-year life of the tax. The tax goes into effect July 1 and funding would become available at the beginning of 2010.

Things of note for fiscal years 2010-2011 include:

• $59.7 million from the Outdoors Heritage Fund to the Department of Natural Resources split among prairies; wetlands; forests; and fish, game and wildlife habitat;

• $40.19 million from the Clean Water Fund to the Pollution Control Agency for grants, drinking water protection, Minnesota River Water Quality testing and wastewater treatment monitoring;

• $31.9 million from the Parks and Trails Fund to the Department of Natural Resources for grants and the state parks and trails legacy;

• $25.37 million from the Clean Water Fund to the Public Facilities Authority for grants among small community wastewater treatment technical assistance and construction and phosphorus reduction; and

• $20.9 million from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund to the Minnesota Historical Society for things including grants, assistance to local historical societies and the Minnesota History Educational Network.

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