PRAIRIE ISLAND -- Lawmakers from the Minnesota House spent three days this week in “mini-sessions” in southeastern Minnesota. The representatives toured businesses and talked with individuals from Austin to Rochester. Stops included the Hormel plant in Austin, RTP Co. in Winona and Rochester’s Mayo Clinic. On Friday, some participating in the mini session visited the Prairie Island Indian Community.

When about 15 lawmakers and House staff arrived in Welch, they and four of the five members of the Tribal Council loaded a bus for a tour the community.

Shelley Buck, Tribal Council president, and Johnny Johnson, treasurer, acted as tour guides for the visitors and told them stories from their lives and the lives of their ancestors.

A common theme was how the community is working to rebuild from actions and decisions made by past lawmakers, for example building U.S. Lock & Dam 3 in 1938, which flooded, according to Buck, about half of the community’s land. The tribe recently bought Elk Run, a 1,200 acre piece of land adjacent to the community, in 2019 to allow expansion and more housing for community members.

After going to the marina and Xcel’s nuclear plant, the tour turned to the Buffalo Project. This began with a single bull in 1992 and has grown to a herd of 147 bison, which roam 187 acres.

A female bison and her calf in the Buffalo Project walk alongside the truck of legislatures and the Prairie Island Tribal Council. Photo by Rachel Fergus/RiverTown Multimedia.
A female bison and her calf in the Buffalo Project walk alongside the truck of legislatures and the Prairie Island Tribal Council. Photo by Rachel Fergus/RiverTown Multimedia.

To get close to the bison, everyone exited the bus and piled into the back of a truck. While standing and holding onto the sides, the group was driven into the pasture area. According to Paul Dressen, the education coordinator for the Buffalo Project, schools and home school groups visit the site to learn about bison and Mdewakanton culture. The ride for the students is sometimes just as exciting as seeing the bison up close.

Despite the bumps, Rep. Sandra Masin, D-51A, exclaimed as she descended from the truck bed, “Well that’s going to be the highlight of the day.”

Currently, the Prairie Island Indian Community is working on a net-zero plan for the island. Funding for this plan was brought to the Minnesota House but ultimately failed in April 2019 when it was placed in an omnibus bill that was voted down.

“We have become a pawn in the political game,” Buck stated.