New Legislation Aims to Bolster Prairie Island Indian Community

An aerial shot of the nuclear site on the Prairie Island Indian Community’s reservation on Prairie Island in Welch, Minnesota (Photo Courtesy Prairie Island Indian Community)

Since the end of the 1800s, the Prairie Island Indian Community has had an established reservation on Prairie Island in Welch, Minnesota, along the Mississippi River. But for more than 80 years, its land base has been radically diminished as the result of actions taken by the United States government.

These actions include the 1938 construction of Lock and Dam No. 3, which flooded a large portion of the reservation lands, as well as the 1973 construction of the Prairie Island Nuclear Plant and subsequent storage of nuclear waste on site just 600 yards from major Tribal areas. This, coupled with the fact that the only evacuation route off of Prairie Island is frequently blocked by passing trains, meaning that the confluence of several events could be deadly to the reservation’s residents.

Today, the Tribe is looking to rectify that series of historical injustices by moving to a safer area on a new parcel of land in Pine Island, roughly 40 miles south of its current land. In 2018, the Tribe purchased the approximately 1,245 acres of land for a total of $15.5 million in hopes of having it taken into trust, which would occur at no cost to taxpayers.

Now, U.S. Representatives Angie Craig and Jim Hagedorn, both from districts in Minnesota, have introduced legislation (H.R. 4752) that would provide for the land to become part of the Tribe’s reservation. The bill is also cosponsored by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

“This bill is an overdue effort to right the federal government’s past wrongs against our people, and we are deeply grateful to Representatives Craig, Hagedorn, and McCollum for supporting us,” said Tribal Council President Shelley Buck in a press release. “We have been trying for years to solve the issues that are the direct result of federal actions: the flooding of our lands and the storage of hazardous nuclear waste next to our homes. This legislation addresses our health and safety concerns and offers us a safer future free from these dangerous threats.”

In addition to the legislation, the Tribe has received resolutions and letters of support for their efforts to have the land taken into trust by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council; the cities of Rochester, Pine Island, and Oronoco; Goodue and Olmstead Counties; New Haven Township; State Representative Barb Haley; State Senators Dave Senjem and Michael Goggin; and Xcel Energy, which operates the nuclear plant.

The priority for the new reservation land, if the bill passes, is to build housing and allow members to relocate to a safer area, the press release notes. In so doing, the Tribe can attract members who want to relocate to their ancestral lands, including the roughly 120 members who have long been on a waiting list for family housing.

It will also allow the Tribe to diversify its economic portfolio, given the new land’s prime location for additional business opportunities. On its current site, the Tribe currently operates the Treasure Island Resort and Casino, which has fine and casual dining options, a full-service salon and spa, a water park, a 3,000-seat event center, and gaming activities including slots, table games, live poker, and bingo. Treasure Island also has seasonal amenities, including a marina, a 100-passenger cruise ship, an RV park, and a golf course.

However, the extremely limited real estate available and the dangers presented by the nuclear plant and other environmental factors have made it difficult to attract or launch other business entities. Therefore, while the Tribe sees this legislation as the first step toward providing compensation for historical wrongs, it also would be a critically-needed next step toward its continued growth and development.

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