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Officials reach common ground over Bay City viaduct project

Scott Csernyik

6/7/2000 12:00:00 AM

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 campgrounds.

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.

Saginaw Chippewa Chief Phil Peters Sr. meets with Bay City engineer John Kolessar on May 15 at the Marquette Avenue viaduct to discuss ways to continue construction without disturbing more burials. In March, the discovery of three human skeletal remains prompted the need for additional testing to tkae place before construction could begin. City officials plan to replace the 72-year-old structure with a road-level railroad crossing. The project is located about four blocks from the Fletcher site where the remains of about 108 Tribal ancestors along with numerous artifacts and funerary objects were excavated.