Environmental, nuclear worries force Prairie Island tribe to seek new lands

Two giant concrete silos sit behind a placid river and fall trees.
The Prairie Island Nuclear Generating plant looms in the distance beyond a lock and dam on the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minn., on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. Long-standing concerns about flooding and the nearby nuclear plant have led Prairie Island to seek property inland from the tribe’s ancestral Mississippi River home.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Schyler Martin’s job calls for him to worry each day about things that could cripple or destroy the Prairie Island Indian Community, but that he can’t control.

The nearby Xcel Energy nuclear power plant that towers over the reservation is high on that list, as is an Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam on the Mississippi River that regularly floods tracts of tribal land upstream.

Martin, the tribe’s emergency management director, can rattle off a list of flooding headaches the tribe faces annually — closing roads, building and maintaining berms, diverting water from Prairie Island’s casino and outdoor amphitheater.

This year has been especially difficult with flooding lasting deep into the fall, closing roads to hunting grounds and damaging hay that feeds the tribe's buffalo herd. "The soil,” said Martin, “is inundated with water.”

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A man in a beige jacket looks at the camera in front of a fall scene.
Schyler Martin is an emergency management coordinator for the Prairie Island Indian Community.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Prairie Island leaders understand that the dam, the flooding and the nuclear plant will not be leaving anytime soon, which is why they’re taking an extraordinary step — expanding the reservation inland, away from their home on the Mississippi River.

Prairie Island last year bought 1,200 acres near Pine Island, Minn., about 35 miles south on U.S. Highway 52. The tribe wants Congress to put the land into trust, adding it to the reservation. In return, the tribe would give up rights to sue the government over flooding caused by the lock-and-dam system.

While it’s a logical step for a tribe that continues to grow and prosper, the relocation plan has reopened old wounds over the displacement of Native American people and white encroachment on Native lands. That includes environmental problems on tribal lands created by nonNative people.

Constant danger

Prairie Island tribal members are descendants of the Mdewakanton Band of Eastern Dakota, who made their home in the southern half of Minnesota — land they lost in 1851 as a result of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.

After the U.S. government hanged 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn., in 1862, that treaty was invalidated and the Dakota were banished from the region.

“What's unique about the Prairie Island Dakota people is that they've got strong evidence that many never left this area,” said Franky Jackson, the tribe’s compliance officer for historic preservation.

He said a small group remained on land near Lake Pepin intended for people who have some Dakota ancestry. “Many found creative ways to retain and occupy land here around the island,” he said.

Prairie Island tribal members slowly returned. And in 1934, the land on the banks of the Mississippi where tribal members live now was federally recognized as a 534-acre reservation.

Four years later, Jackson said, the community once again was thrown into upheaval when the Army Corps of Engineers built a lock-and-dam system just downstream to accommodate commercial navigation.

The structure flooded reservation land and shrank its footprint to 300 livable acres.

“You have a federal undertaking that is proposing to take more land and again displace Dakota people,” said Jackson. “It's just another example of the encroachment the tribe was facing at that time."

It’s a project that continues to trouble the reservation. The flooding has swamped traditions that help younger generations connect with their history. Floodwaters this year canceled a maple syrup harvesting event for kids.

“This is something that the children’s ancestors have been doing for hundreds of years,” Martin said.

But it's the threat of a nuclear disaster that keeps him up at night.

Martin said a routine Federal Emergency Management Agency exercise in 2018 opened his eyes to how a mishap at the nuclear power plant could upend the day-to-day operations of the Treasure Island Resort and Casino, the tribe's primary source of income for years.

"How do you relocate a reservation? These are federal trust lands. How do you relocate that?” he said. “And then how do you make up for the economic viability for the tribe? Obviously, nobody is going to want to come down to the casino."

Dozens of bison graze in a field in front of fall trees.
The Prairie Island Indian Community's herd of bison graze in their pasture near Red Wing, Minn., on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In a statement, Xcel Energy said its facility in Prairie Island is considered very safe by third-party experts and that it works closely with the tribal community as a neighbor. The Army Corps of Engineers also said that they continue to work with the tribe to stabilize the land and improve water quality in the area.

The nuclear plant’s towers rise about 600 yards away from where Lucy “Lu” Taylor played as a kid. Back then, she didn't understand the potential dangers of living near the plant. As tribal vice president, she understands it well.

“Now, I'm an elder and I have grandchildren now, and it could be devastating to my grandchildren,” she said. “It's not right for our kids to grow up here."

‘A very powerful thing’

The eye-opening worries that surfaced in the 2018 FEMA drill led Prairie Island to buy the Pine Island property, said Shelley Buck, the tribal council’s president.

"Part of our culture is you're supposed to look out for the next seven generations. So, as tribal leaders, we have to do that. With every decision, we need to look out for that and have that in the back of our minds,” said Buck, who also counts among Prairie Island’s potential dangers a nearby rail line that regularly carries hazardous materials.

"Knowing all the things that we deal with, sometimes it gets pretty gloomy here,” she said. “It gets pretty ominous. It's like something's over us."

The threats have kept the tribe from accommodating 120 tribal members on its housing waitlist and expanding for future generations, she said.

That’s why the Pine Island land and its potential for housing and economic development is so important. Local officials in Pine Island, Rochester and Olmsted County all support Congress putting the land into trust — a necessary step to make the Pine Island land part of the reservation and subject to tribal law.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from Minnesota's delegation has introduced a bill that would put the Pine Island land into trust. So far, the bill has not been debated in Congress.

Buck emphasized the new land is not a replacement for the current reservation but a way for the tribe to grow. She said tribal members will always live along the Mississippi because it's sacred land.

“That's why we're not asking for replacement land. We're asking to be compensated for the land that was stolen from us here illegally,” she said. “We are just wanting land to make up for that land that's sitting out there in the middle of the water now."

A woman sits in front of a wall of books and looks at the camera.
Tribal general counsel Jessie Seim.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Tribal general counsel Jessie Seim said her research suggested the tribe had strong legal claims against the federal government for both the land lost due to flooding and for siting the nuclear power plant so close to the reservation.

Rather than pursue that, however, the tribe is ready to drop those legal claims to get the congressional approval needed to move forward on the Pine Island plan.

"We wanted to fashion a settlement, sovereign to sovereign," Seim said. "We wanted the governing bodies of both of these governments to come together and try to resolve the series of wrongs that have happened here at Prairie Island."

Prairie Island leaders hope that building houses at Pine Island will bring tribal members like Melody Whitebear back to the reservation.

Whitebear grew up in Kansas City, Mo., but visited relatives often at tribal lands by the Mississippi, and as an adult has come back on occasion to live with relatives on the reservation.

If she's able to move back permanently, Whitebear said she wants to be an emissary for other members who want to come home.

"I think it's just being a part of who I really am,” she said. "In the crazy world that we're in, we need to have a support system. And there's no better support than to know that people you are related to are behind you. That's a very powerful thing.”