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

Catharine Richert / 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.


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.


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.


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.”

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.

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