Officials reach common ground over Bay City viaduct project
By Scott Csernyik, Staff Writer
Saginaw Chippewa officials are developing a protocol which will give
municipalities a clear procedure to follow when they encounter American
Indian burial sites.
The action comes in the wake of the March 24 discovery of three human
skeletal remains about five feet below the surface during a project to
replace a 72-year-old viaduct on Marquette Avenue in Bay City.
"We still hope we can find a cooperative resolution," stated Saginaw
Chippewa Public Relations Director Frank Cloutier. "Any protocol we can
establish to be applied in other areas when this situation becomes an
issue again will only benefit all of the entities involved."
On May 15, a Tribal delegation led by Chief Phil Peters Sr. met with
Bay City Engineer John Kolessar to discuss the project and ways to find
an amicable solution for both parties.
"This is not a conspiracy," an apologetic Kolessar stated. "There's no
desire on the part of the city to avoid the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe. The
city is very pragmatic. They do not want a confrontation over this project.
"A good working relationship is in the best interests of the Tribe and
the city. We're advertising Bay City as a stop on the way to Mt. Pleasant
for the casino. The problem, I think, is that there's a lack of trust."
Three days before representatives from Tribal Council and the Ziibiwing
Cultural Society visited the site, Cloutier hand-delivered a letter from
Peters to Bay City Mayor Kathleen Newsham and others at City Hall.
"No one bothered to contact the Tribe about the Marquette Avenue burial,"
the two-page letter stated in part. "In our view, it is inexcusable...We
believe much can be accomplished through simple communication to avoid
repeating the mistakes of the past."
In a May 16 letter, Newsham responded to the Tribe's correspondence
and stated they "are also concerned and sensitive to Native American burial
sites" in the area.
"We would like to take a proactive approach to this matter as it concerns
the Marquette Avenue viaduct project," she added. "We need to maintain
an open dialogue as the city earnestly wants to work together with the
Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe."
But as a protocol is being developed, researchers continue to sift soil
at the site, located about four blocks from the Fletcher Site Cemetery.
The federally protected cemetery, situated on the west bank of the Saginaw
River, was excavated by Michigan State University archaeological officials
between 1967 and 1970. About 108 Tribal ancestors believed to date back
to 1700, their funerary objects and other items of cultural significance
were unearthed and taken back to MSU.
In October 1996, ZCS officials conducted their first repatriation effort
and the remains were retrieved from MSU, placed in cedar boxes and reburied
in the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe's new cemetery located to the south of the
Bay City officials have contracted with MSU and could spend up to $400,000,
according to their agreement, depending on what is discovered. Kolessar
pledged to the visiting delegation that any remains or objects found will
be turned over to the Tribe.
The crumbling viaduct has been closed down for three years, routing
traffic on a brief detour instead of along Marquette, once a main thoroughfare.
About $2 million, mostly from the state and federal governments, will
pay for the demolition of the viaduct.
On May 19, researchers staked off a 200-meter area at the viaduct. As
of press deadlines on May 26, the group reported having only found fire-cracked
rock and an animal tooth. "Bay City officials are recognizing the Tribe's
concerns as they relate to Native American remains and public work," Cloutier
added. "These efforts will lead to an acceptable protocol that other municipalities
will be expected to follow."
*The Associated Press contributed to this report.