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Excavating the Past in the Chippewa National Forest

There are over 3,000 archaeological sites in northern Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest, covering a range of time from just after the Ice Age (10,000 years ago) to the early 20th century. The sites include early logging camp sites, fur trade sites, recreational sites, and sites reflecting Ojibwe and Dakota heritage.

Sean Dunham is Heritage Program Manager for the Chippewa National Forest. As an archaeologist, his job is to dig into the history and culture of the forest and make sure activities like logging don’t disturb the historical record. Sean’s office in the log Forest Supervisor’s Building in Cass Lake is itself historic, built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

In his visit to Northern Community Radio Wednesday morning, Sean told us that archaeological sites in the Chippewa are quite diverse, with much “time depth.” A “site” might be a spot where a snowmobile broke down in the early 20th century. Old buckets among maple trees might lead to discovery of an old sugaring camp. A dump, or “trash scatter’” might indicate the presence of an early homestead. Archaeologists develop a sense of what to look for on a site that might seem just another opening in the woods to the rest of us.

One of the most interesting sites is the South Pike Bay Campground, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. As Sean says, a place that is a good campground now probably was a good campground in the past.

This summer Sean may be documenting finds along a trail that leads from Leech Lake Reservation to Red Lake. He is working on interpretive material to place at the Knutson Dam campsite.

Are you interested in archaeology? If so, there is a national program that allows lay people to help historians and archaeologists preserve our nation’s past. It’s called Passport in Time. (passportintime.com)

You can hear Sean Dunham's full interview below:

Katie Carter started at Northern Community Radio in 2008 as Managing Editor of the station's grant-funded, online news experiment Northern Community Internet. Since 2016, she's produced Area Voices showcasing the arts, culture, and history stories of northern Minnesota. She's our local host of NPR's All Things Considered and CBC's As It Happens every weekday from 4-7pm.