The Minnesota Workers Who Are Still Searching for Justice

The Minnesota Workers Who Are Still Searching for Justice

The Minnesota Workers Who Are Still Searching for Justice

A crew of mostly Indigenous workers faced inhumane conditions at a burial recovery site in northern Minnesota. They refuse to give up fighting for justice.


When Matthew Northrup was a child in the 1980s, his dad would drive him around the area near their home in Fond du Lac—a neighborhood in Duluth, Minn., named for the Northrups’ tribe, the Fond du Lac Band of Superior Chippewa—pointing out sites that their people considered historically important. On one such drive, he motioned toward a grassy hill just past Highway 23 along the St. Louis River, which flows into the southern tip of Lake Superior. “Son, all of your ancestors are buried up there,” he said.

In the summer of 2017, Northrup found himself on that hillside, sifting through mounds of dirt with a mesh screen. “There were bones everywhere. I’m still bothered by that,” Northrup said of the remains that were scattered across the site, where the Anishinaabe people had gathered since at least ad 800.

That May, the Minnesota Department of Transportation had disturbed the sacred burial ground during a bridge construction project that had been undertaken without consulting the Fond du Lac Band. In an effort to clean up its mess, MnDOT enlisted the archaeologist Sigrid Arnott to conduct the burial recovery project for which Northrup would soon be hired.

Arnott quickly set out to assemble a staff, and by the end of summer she had hired roughly two dozen primarily Native American workers to join a team that would be led by women. The composition of the group was significant for MnDOT, which had been missing its diversity goals for its contractors and workforce for years.

In keeping with Indigenous traditions, the workers would practice the tribal ritual of smudging at the start of their day to cleanse their bodies and minds before engaging with the remains; they placed tobacco leaves on the ground as an offering to the ancestral spirits and as a show of gratitude for the nature around them. Then they commenced the emotional and harrowing search, screening the soil pan by pan and gently brushing the remains clean. They handled every bone fragment and bead with care, storing them in cedar boxes as directed by tribal elders and growing closer to one another as the days passed. “When you pull up a baby finger, it doesn’t matter who’s sitting next to you or where they’re from; you bond immediately,” Northrup said. “When you’re doing this day in and day out for 10 to 12 hours a day, it doesn’t matter who you are—white, Black, brown, green, purple—you’re bonded.”

As that summer’s sweltering heat gave way to a cool fall, the crew, which had become accustomed to working outside along the roads, had to move indoors to continue the recovery effort through the freezing temperatures ahead.

MnDOT’s answer was a Sprung building, a temporary structure made of tensioned fabric that can be erected quickly and economically and can withstand the harshest weather. “We thought it was great,” Kate Ratkovich, Arnott’s second-in-command on the project, said of the building, which was heated by propane tanks and ventilated by a fan, when the crew relocated there that winter. “We were pulling soil from the hoop houses and screening inside this structure. We had a little lab in the corner where our lab tech would go through human remains, separating them as needed and cleaning artifacts. It was brilliant and an awesome space to work in at first.”

The crew’s excitement soon waned as problems with the building popped up. The fan pushed the hot air out and rushed icy winter air in. And the team started to experience mysterious health issues.

“My depression and anxiety were skyrocketing,” said Christian Johnson, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe who worked on Arnott’s team. Northrup would fall asleep constantly. “All of a sudden, I’d be asleep at lunch. I have mental problems already, but this heightened my despair. I was suicidal,” he recalled. Arnott began feeling unwell too, but she chalked it up to the stress of the job and to living out of a hotel hours away from her home in Minneapolis. “At the end of the day I would drive like three miles and stop to sleep on the side of the road before having the energy to get to the hotel,” she said. “I had brain fog and forgetfulness, constant nosebleeds, and dark rings under my eyes.”

Concerned about the health of her workers, Arnott requested that the building be inspected. In January 2018, MnDOT sent an industrial hygienist to the site. After Arnott showed him around, the hygienist noted what the building’s carbon dioxide numbers were and said an official report with recommendations would follow.

But the report never came. As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, Arnott requested the report several times through her contact at MnDOT. Realizing that the agency wasn’t going to share it with her, Arnott made a data practices request—Minnesota’s version of a FOIA request—which was fulfilled in April, three months after the hygienist’s visit. What she read shed light on the symptoms she and her team were experiencing.

The report confirmed that there were high levels of carbon dioxide inside the Sprung building, noting that they reached as high as 3,122 parts per million. The report explained that while that number doesn’t exceed the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s permissible exposure limit—a number that hasn’t been updated since 1992—it was “higher than what is generally accepted as a good practice for indoor levels of CO2.” Recent studies by researchers at Yale and Harvard have found that carbon dioxide exposure causes a decline in decision-making performance when levels reach 1,000 ppm, building to an “astonishingly large” drop in mental capacity at 2,500 ppm.

When Arnott and Ratkovich shared the findings with their crew two days later, the overarching sentiment wasn’t anger; it was sadness. “It hindered all of us who are Native American from practicing our religion with a sound mind,” Johnson said of the smudging and prayer rituals they routinely engaged in. “You’re supposed to do that stuff with a sound mind and open heart,” he continued, but their observances had been interrupted by hypoxia.

Later that day, Arnott e-mailed the project’s liaison from the Fond du Lac Band, MnDOT, and other stakeholders about the building’s air quality issues. She outlined how the problem disproportionately affected the predominantly Native American crew, effectively lodging a civil rights complaint. For Native people and racial justice advocates, it’s not possible to separate the history of murder and cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples and the abuses inflicted on these groups today. Whether or not the events leading to their oppression were intentional, the impact on them is the same. MnDOT’s response to Arnott was that she could cancel her contract if she was unhappy.

On April 17, after a storm that blanketed the state in 15 inches of snow had cleared, MnDOT informed Arnott that her team could not report for duty until the department determined what to do about the issues she had raised. MnDOT allowed the crew to return to the site later that month, but the work would be short-lived. On May 11, MnDOT notified Arnott via certified letter that her contract was being terminated, citing as a reason only that it “was not ‘for cause,’ but rather for the convenience of the government.” Where MnDOT claimed convenience, the crew saw retaliation.

Jacob Loesch, the director of the department’s office of communications and public engagement, said that “MnDOT terminated the contract in consultation with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa which faced significant challenges working with Arnott Consulting.” A spokesperson for the tribe told The Nation they “strongly supported MnDOT’s decision to terminate the contract. Ms. Arnott’s conduct at the burial site was disrespectful to the Band.” When asked for clarification on her conduct, the spokesperson did not comment further. But sources that The Nation interviewed for this story disputed this claim. An internal MnDOT source involved with the project, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, described Arnott as well liked by the Native American community. This person said that what MnDOT really wanted was to get through the winter so that the structure’s air quality would no longer be an issue. Ultimately, “we should have fixed it,” the source said.

Jim Jones, then the cultural resource director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which was involved with the project, also saw Arnott as esteemed. “I told the [Fond du Lac] tribe this is someone you want to do this work because she cares. I supported FDL making the recommendation for Sigrid to take this job on.” Jones’s son Charles, who worked on Arnott’s crew and often fell asleep while he was screening soil in the Sprung building, said that the tribe wanted the burial recovery work done correctly above all else. “Ironically, getting it done correctly would have been keeping Sigrid on, because she actually cared,” he said.

While June 2018 was the official end of Arnott’s work at the burial ground, it was just the beginning of the crew’s battle to right the wrongs they had experienced there. “We always felt, and continue to feel, that we were discriminated against in terms of how we were treated on-site. And we always knew that it would be a very hard thing to prove,” Arnott said.

Years later, after the crew had encountered numerous dead ends, Arnott said federal investigators verbally confirmed their experience, but turning that confirmation into actionable resolutions would prove to be even harder.

That May, Arnott gave MnDOT’s Office of Equity and Diversity the contact information of crew members who wanted to file complaints about what they’d experienced or to serve as witnesses. Ultimately, Arnott, Ratkovich, and Dave Maki (a subcontractor) filed complaints, but MnDOT didn’t respond to any of them. Instead, on May 31, Seema Desai, the Office of Equity and Diversity’s director, informed Arnott that a “careful review” had led her to determine that the complaints about mistreatment during the project were “either outside the scope of [MnDOT’s] workplace discrimination policy or have already been reviewed by the agency.”

Arnott was deflated, but she was busy on a new project and was trying to hire some of her old crew, many of whom had been out of work since the Highway 23 debacle. The crew’s desire to hold MnDOT accountable never waned.

The impact of the experience had not faded either. Some of the crew’s members, including Northrup and Johnson, had been rehired by the Highway 23 project’s new contractor, Hamline University, but then had been demoted, they said, and their pay reduced from $25 to $20 an hour.

Rumors that they were troublemakers followed them around the job site. “We were treated like delinquent children. It was humiliating,” Ratkovich said. “We were told that if there’s any negativity on this site, you will all be terminated. Our jobs were threatened within 10 minutes of us being back on that site.” (The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council did not respond to questions regarding this allegation.)

In November 2018, Arnott and her crew decided to continue their search for justice by filing an appeal with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, the agency charged with upholding the state’s civil rights laws. They simultaneously filed a complaint with the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights, which is responsible for ensuring that MnDOT and the other state agencies funded by the FHWA are complying with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. More than two years later, in February 2021, Rebecca Lucero, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, wrote that the agency had found there was “no probable cause” to believe that discrimination had occurred.

This is the same finding that is reached in more than 90 percent of the cases that make it to this phase of the agency’s investigation process, according to a February 2020 audit. The audit also found that the department had a backlog of more than 800 cases in 2019; often missed statutory deadlines; had conducted, up until recently, only minimal screenings of complaints; and operated without an effective case triage process.

Although MnDOT has continued to maintain that there were “legitimate non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons for the contract termination,” a call from FHWA investigators in the summer of 2021 gave the crew hope. According to Arnott and Maki, the investigators told them on the call that they had found two instances of discrimination by MnDOT. Both were in the form of retaliation after Arnott had raised civil rights concerns—the first when MnDOT halted the crew’s work after her complaint and the second when it terminated her contract. (The Nation reviewed correspondence between Arnott and the FHWA confirming the discussion of the agency’s findings.)

“We thought finally some adults had stepped in and that people were finally going to be held accountable for their behavior,” Maki said. The investigators asked Arnott and the crew to come up with a dollar amount for damages that the FHWA could bring to MnDOT in an effort to settle the matter informally—a common practice—which stunned Arnott. “I always thought this would be some kind of symbolic gesture,” she said.

The crew spent weeks combing through old pay stubs to quantify their losses, finding a way to translate their suffering into monetary terms. They finally arrived at a figure—“a couple million split across 13 people,” Arnott said—and brought it to the feds. “I was really hopeful,” Johnson said. “Something was going to change, and we were going to get paid and finally put all of this behind us.”

But since that summer, little has happened. After submitting the settlement request, Arnott said the investigators told the crew that MnDOT refused to participate in the process. Loesch, the department’s communications director, said that MnDOT has cooperated with the FHWA. But Arnott and her team are still waiting for justice.

Despite running into bureaucratic roadblocks, they refuse to give up. “I’m not gonna go away,” said Johnson. “I’m going to keep on keepin’ on, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Other avenues for remediation are scant. In Minnesota, “we don’t really have a good accountability mechanism for human rights,” said David Schultz, an attorney and law professor at Hamline University. “I’ve noticed a pattern over the years that Minnesota creates a lot of agencies that don’t have a lot of teeth.”

Things are a bit different on the federal level. The FHWA could issue a public Letter of Finding against MnDOT and withhold critical funding. Doing so, however, would be unprecedented. To date, the agency has only issued Letters of Finding that cover the disparate effects of discrimination, not discrimination itself.

Determined to hold the state accountable for their treatment and lost wages, Arnott and her team have been fighting for redress for the past five years—an arduous process she describes as “death by 5,000 cuts.” Still, the crew has continued to search for support. During the past year they’ve reached out to Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, who is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, as well as to Representative Ilhan Omar and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. The elected representatives told The Nation that their offices reached out to the FHWA on the crew’s behalf to urge it to move more quickly.

A spokesperson for the FHWA told The Nation that the agency “takes equity and civil rights seriously” and has investigated the complaint in accordance with regulations and guidance. In a March 2022 letter to Senator Smith, the FHWA wrote that “in February 2021, [the Office of Civil Rights] completed its investigation and shared its draft Letter of Finding report” with various federal agencies, including the Justice Department and the Department of Transportation’s Office of General Counsel. With the crew still waiting for answers nearly a year after the conclusion of the investigation, drawn-out federal processes and ineffective support from elected leaders have only compounded their experience at the burial site.

“It’s like you never really leave Highway 23. We keep trying to make people deal with our human rights complaint,” Johnson said of the group’s efforts to obtain support from state and federal representatives and agencies. “But they keep ducking and dodging us, sending us lip-service e-mails saying that they’ll get back to us, and they never do.” The experience has left him feeling like “they’re just trying to hold out as long as they can so we’ll just give up and go away.”

Ratkovich likens the experience to surviving a sinking ship. “We’ve been treading water for years. Once in a while, someone will hear us out,” she said of the flashes of hope that come when it seems like a government agency or representative might actually help them. For her, each interview is like shooting a bright orange flare into the sky. “That flare is seen, it’s acknowledged, and the plane flies away. There’s a brief moment of relief because we’ve told our story,” she said. “Then we keep waiting for help to arrive, and it never does.”

What Arnott has taken away from the process is more insidious: that the systems designed to protect workers and to defend marginalized communities often perpetuate bureaucratic violence instead, with diversity initiatives serving as the vehicle for injustice. “What does [diversity] do?” she wondered. “In the era we’re in, it just expands the opportunities to discriminate against more people. You get everyone together on this diverse team and then they get to just destroy everyone with impunity. So now I feel like diversity initiatives are actually dangerous.”

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