WELCH -- Having to close the Treasure Island Casino & Resort because of COVID-19 has helped the Prairie Island Indian Community realize many of the steps they need to take to provide security for their future.

Losing the revenue from the casino has long been a fear for the community living on an island in the Mississippi River, because of three threats -- severe flooding, a nuclear disaster or a railroad accident.

“The fear of something happening to the casino has been something that we have lived with every day because of 'The Trifecta,'” Tribal Council President Shelley Buck said. “Our fear became a reality when we had to shut down the casino. In a way, it has helped us see areas in which we can improve.”

Medicine pouches prepared for tribal members during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of the Prairie Island Indian Community.
Medicine pouches prepared for tribal members during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of the Prairie Island Indian Community.

Buck noted that the potential of a nuclear issue is the one that looms largest. Xcel Energy's two-unit Prairie Island nuclear plant sits next door.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“In that case, we wouldn’t only have to close down our casino, we would lose our reservation,” she said. “We would lose our home. We would have to restart from the beginning.”

Dealing with COVID-19 and the closing of the casino temporarily confirmed some of the worst fears held by community members and has increased their search for land elsewhere so there is someplace to go in case of one of the above emergencies.

“The greatest thing we have is our self-sufficiency, and having to close down and possibly leave our homes threatens that self-sufficiency,” Buck said.

The Prairie Island Indian Community has just over 1,000 members with 200 living in the community and 40% living within a 50-mile radius, according to Buck.

“Our members are able to live anywhere,” she said. “We have members that live on the East Coast. We have members that live in California. They live all over.”

The Prairie Island Indian Community sponsors a powwow every summer, but the 2020 powwow was canceled because of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of the Prairie Island Indian Community.
The Prairie Island Indian Community sponsors a powwow every summer, but the 2020 powwow was canceled because of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of the Prairie Island Indian Community.

That means that communication can sometimes be challenging. Buck posts a weekly video update on the community’s Facebook page, and they have a website for tribal members that contains current information about tribal concerns.

With the arrival of the coronavirus, Buck said many members have been working remotely and having virtual meetings and conference calls. She has also held two quarterly tribal meetings on Zoom.

“That has been a big success,” she said. “It has actually opened up access to more members. We are working now to make sure that continues even after we restart our in-person meetings, so that people that live in other states can continue to participate in those important meetings.”

The buffalo herd at Prairie Island produced 40 calves during the time the casino was shutdown. Photo courtesy of the Prairie Island Indian Community.
The buffalo herd at Prairie Island produced 40 calves during the time the casino was shutdown. Photo courtesy of the Prairie Island Indian Community.

Buck said there have also been important developments in communication beyond the community with state and federal officials.

“We really worked government to government in consultation on all levels,” she said. “With the federal government, we have met with our senators and representatives. We have been on a lot of conference calls that the White House has, that the IHS has, that the BIA has. We have been on calls with the governor or lieutenant governor almost weekly, giving us updates and hearing our concerns.”

Like ot

The Prairie Island Indian Community hopes people who come to Treasure Island to leave with some understanding of Mdewakanton Dakota, said Rayanna Lennes, a tribal member and the community's communications manager. This heritage wall in the hotel lobby is among the cultural touches throughout the complex. Anne Jacobson / RiverTown Multimedia
The Prairie Island Indian Community hopes people who come to Treasure Island to leave with some understanding of Mdewakanton Dakota, said Rayanna Lennes, a tribal member and the community's communications manager. This heritage wall in the hotel lobby is among the cultural touches throughout the complex. Anne Jacobson / RiverTown Multimedia
her groups and organizations facing the COVID crisis, the Prairie Island Indian Community has faced challenges in recent months. Buck said the experience has proven how strong the community is and members' efforts have brought them closer together.

One important development that is bringing employees at the casino together is a comprehensive training program. While guests may not see the training directly, Mike Heavner, director of finances and interim general manager, said the training has changed many important aspects of casino operations.

"Every team member has received training and has access to our plan," Heavner said. "Every department has its own section and their own procedures which are followed seriously day in and day out. Hopefully, guests will see it indirectly by how we operate."

With the casino open and running again, Buck is optimistic about the future of both the casino and the community.

“We are taking the lessons that we have learned from this,” she said, “and we will continue to use those and build upon those lessons and grow our capacity more, especially living with the trifecta that we live with every day. We will take these lessons and use them for future issues that come up.”