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Questions surround American Indian remains at Bemidji store site

Attorney Megan Treuer stands outside of the Pamida store in Bemidji. Her mother is a Leech Lake Ojibwe band member. Treuer was only a child when skeletal remains of 22 people were uncovered as an addition to the store was being built in 1988. The Pamida store will close next month, and Treuer would like to see the building removed to restore honor to a site their ancestors occupied for thousands of years. Tom Robertson|MPR News 91.3 FM

The planned closing of a Pamida store in Bemidji next month is raising questions about what will happen to Native American remains on the property.

Skeletal remains were uncovered during construction of an addition to the store in 1988. Now, some members of the Indian community say the store's closing is an opportunity to restore honor to a site that was occupied by their ancestors for thousands of years.

Megan Treuer was just a little girl when a bulldozer unearthed the remains of 22 people at the store site. Treuer, an attorney whose mother is Ojibwe, remembers that members of her family were so enraged that they decided to never again shop at the store.

The bones were returned to their underground resting place. Treuer wonders how many more may be there.

"To be honest, my stomach turns a little bit and I just kind of think about all of the people that are buried underneath the store and probably the parking lot," she said.

The Pamida store was built right at the edge of the Mississippi River as it enters Lake Bemidji. The site's proximity to two lakes and a navigable river made it a perfect spot for human habitation. Evidence shows people lived there for thousands of years. Burial mounds along the river were identified by archeologists in the late 1800s.

Now that Pamida is closing, Treuer would like to see the building removed and a memorial erected that honors those who lived and died there. She said the way the remains are being treated is disrespectful.

"Just the fact that people are going into this store right now to buy whatever they're going to buy... it seems like a real ironic combination, because they're walking on a huge grave," she said.

Since 1976, Indian burial sites have been protected by state law. When Native American remains are disturbed, it becomes the responsibility of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.

Jim Jones, the council's cultural resource director and a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said at the time it was determined the remains were Dakota Sioux. Elders from Sioux communities in southern Minnesota decided the remains should be reburied in place.

"They were put back in the ground with a ceremony," Jones said. "Let's just say that tobacco was offered and there was elders that were there that assisted with that. And so they were put back in a good way. The best way they could at the time."

Native American remains have been unearthed in Bemidji before, most notably during public works projects in the 1930s and 1950s. In 1998, the City of Bemidji hired a Red Lake Nation archaeological team to research and map all known burial sites in the city so they could be better protected.

But Jones still is frustrated by the lack of respect for hallowed Indian ground. He knows of several public and private construction projects near burial sites that went ahead, even though he was never notified about them.

As for the Pamida site, Jones said members of the Indian Affairs Council believe it would be best if the building were eventually removed, though that's up to the private landowner.

"In some cultures it's acceptable to relocate or move burials," Jones said. "But in American Indian cultures, that's not acceptable. And because of all the things that have happened there already, enough is enough. Leave it alone. Let them rest peacefully."

The Pamida property is owned by David Bolger, a businessman from Ridgewood, N.J. So far, he has not spoken of his plans for the site.

The Headwaters Science Center in downtown Bemidji has expressed interested in moving into the building. Some have even suggested the city buy the property to protect it and turn it into green space.

State Archeologist Scott Anfinson said the area along the river in Bemidji is significant and worth protecting. It's been occupied as a village site since prehistoric times.

The Pamida excavation revealed more than 12,000 artifacts, including arrowhead projectiles and pottery shards estimated to be between 500 and more than 7,000 years old.