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Double Ditch Indian Village’s $3.5 million project to preserve burial grounds with a view

The State Historical Socieity of North Dakota is hoping to start work on a preservation project in early 2016 at the Double Ditch Indian Village Historic Site. The project involves stemming erosion at the site north of Bismarck. Above, the Field Stone Buiilding at Double Ditch was built in 1936 by a crew with the Works Progress Administration. (Tribune Photo by TOM STROMME)

BISMARCK -- Preservation of the Double Ditch Indian Village and burial grounds along the Missouri River that conservatively may have the remains of 10,000 people has become a green project that will bypass brick and mortar in favor of a jetty, riprap and some terracing to protect 1,900 feet of riverbank.

“The site will be preserved, and there will be enhanced access to the riverbank. The project is very large, and it’s one of the most significant sites I’d say in North Dakota,” Fern Swenson, director of archaeology and historic preservation with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, said.

The historical society received approval from the Legislature last session for the $3.5 million project on the river just north of Bismarck. Plans include building a jetty in order to prevent further erosion as well as erecting a riprap, or rock barrier. Some terracing at the site also would be part of the proposed fix.

Design and engineering plans, by Southfield, Mich.-based Atwell LLC , are underway and expected to be completed in January. Construction is slated for the first quarter of 2016.

Officials with the historical society hosted an open house Nov. 19 at the North Dakota Heritage Center to provide the public with an update on the project and answer questions before a crowd of about 25 people.

“So far, we’re really in the preliminary phase. In another month, we’ll know a lot more,” said Charlene Webber, natural resources team leader for Atwell, who reported that work so far has included soil tests to determine how best to preserve the land as well as monitoring the river to see how it has been eating away at the site.

Historical society officials underscore that preserving the site without damaging the natural view is a priority.

A Dec. 1 timetable to bid out the project has been moved to early February, according to Swenson, who said the original schedule was tight for getting the necessary permits secured.

“As soon as the design and all the permitting is done, we’ll bid it out,” Swenson said.

The need for protecting the site has been growing since 2011. Flooding along the Missouri River that year began a process of water eating away the ground at the site, causing buried remains of Native Americans from hundreds of years ago to become exposed.

As of spring, an area as far as 150 feet from the bank of the Missouri River has been impacted by erosion. Sixteen burial areas have been moved.

Historical society board member Calvin Grinnell said he is pleased with the coordination between Atwell, the state and tribal members so far.

“It’s made good progress, and they keep us informed,” Grinnell said. “I like the idea of the engineering and working to make it a green project so that it’s as aesthetically pleasing as possible."