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— When Kandiyohi County was awarded a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources grant in 2021 to build a new bath house at Big Kandiyohi Lake County Park East, part of the process was to complete a cultural resources survey of the project area.

The county, in its application for the DNR grant, said it was aware the park was within the boundaries of a known Minnesota Archaeological Site, based on data from the State Historic Preservation Office, and an archaeological survey was needed to make sure there was nothing in the construction area that would be impacted by the project.

Located at the entrance to the park is a listed historic structure, Bridge No. 34526. However, the grant application said no work was expected to take place near the structure.

An investigation in 2021 on the area where the bathhouse was to be constructed, as well as additional work completed in 2023 throughout the park, uncovered what is thought to be a previously unknown Native American burial ground.

“Every spot we surveyed, we found findings,” said County Administrator Kelsey Baker in a Feb. 22 interview with the West Central Tribune.

The Minnesota Private Cemeteries Act requires that all human burials, remains and burial grounds — regardless of ethnic origins, cultural backgrounds or religious affiliations — be accorded equal treatment and respect.

The law also states that any construction or development plans for sites that are known or suspected to have human burials must be reviewed by the state archaeologist and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council if the remains are American Indian in origin.

“Now that we know (about the burial site), we can’t unknow it,” Baker said, and the county has to follow the state rules and regulations pertaining to that.

In September 2023, representatives from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council came out to Big Kandi East to review and walk the site.

“From there it was decided we needed to create this maintenance agreement,” Baker said, which would allow the county to still operate the park, but also make sure that the land and burial ground found there would be treated properly and respectfully.

Baker hopes the agreement will be completed and in front of the Kandiyohi County Board by mid-March.

“This is part of our culture and part of our heritage,” Baker said. “I think it is something we are willing to work with (the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council) and the state.”

The discovery of the burial grounds does create some challenges for the county and how it moves forward with maintenance and upgrades at the park.

For the 2024 camping season, the Big Kandi East park will be open as normal and camping reservations are being taken.

However, any major construction projects, such as a new bathhouse, may not pass Minnesota Indian Affairs Council or state review, because the construction would pose too much of a risk to the burials.

“It is really a tough one,” Baker said.

A big question that still needs to be answered is whether the county will still be able to use the $234,000 in grant funds from the DNR, which have to be spent by June 30. While the bathhouse project probably is not moving forward, there are other park improvements the county could undertake.

Possible options being looked at to improve the park but not adversely impact the archaeological finds include building additional camper cabins on concrete pads that already exist at the park and bringing in a mobile bathhouse on wheels.

At the Feb. 20

Kandiyohi County Board

meeting, Baker gave the commissioners a brief update on the park issue. She recognized the hard work county and park staff have been doing to figure out how this will impact all park stakeholders from the campers and public to the Native American community and the DNR.

“I would just ask for respect and time,” to make sure this is done in a way that is respectful to the land but true to what the county does at the park, Baker said at the meeting.

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