PRAIRIE ISLAND — In 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Lock No. 3 on the Mississippi River. The lock is one of the structures built along the river to maintain a channel that is at least 9 feet deep so boats can navigate safely. The Prairie Island Indian Community states that the construction of the lock resulted in flooding and a permanent loss of land on the reservation. Now, the Prairie Island Indian Community Land Claim Settlement Act is before Congress. If passed, it would add land to the reservation as compensation for the flooding, according to a press release from the community.

Tribal Council President Shelley Buck explained in an interview with the Republican Eagle:

“Our tribe has been looking for years for land elsewhere. Back in 2003, there was a bill in the state here that allowed Xcel to store more waste on their land but it also allowed us to get up to 1,500 acres in a 50-mile radius to be put into trust. We’ve been looking for years and it’s really hard to find that much land that’s together in an area that’s anywhere remotely close to us and that we have a tie to. So, when this land came available, we’re like, ‘buy it.’”

U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Jim Hagedorn introduced this bill Oct. 22 and Rep. Betty McCollum is a co-sponsor.

In a press release, Craig wrote:

“I'm pleased to introduce bipartisan legislation that would allow the Prairie Island Indian Community to put additional land into trust as a settlement for land previously taken from them by the United States government. This community was forced onto their current land in 1889, and in the years since have had portions of that land taken away by the government without their consent to build a nuclear power plant and a lock and dam system along the Mississippi River. The combination of these projects has created unique risks for the community. Tribal members live approximately 600 yards from a nuclear power plant and much of the tribal lands have been deemed unusable due to flooding from the lock and dam system. Entry points onto and off the island are extremely limited. It's time that the U.S. government settles these claims and makes this right to ensure that the Prairie Island Indian Community can grow for generations to come.”

When members of the Minnesota House visited Prairie Island during their “mini-session” at the beginning of October, Buck recounted some of the community’s history and traditions throughout a bus tour of the reservation. During the tour, she mentioned that the reservation needed more land because they expanded to the edges of their property that was not flooded.

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, the Prairie Island reservation, a total of 120 acres, was created in 1886. The Prairie Island website states that in 1934, 414 more acres were purchased for the reservation. After the creation of the lock, only 300 livable acres remained.

While this bill would put more land into the tribe’s trust, Buck explains that there is no way to measure what was lost with the flooding that began in 1938:

“To try to get an evaluation would almost be impossible. How do you put a price tag on this land? How do you put a price tag on land that holds such sacred value to us? We just figured this is the best way. We’re not asking Congress to pay us back. It won’t cost the taxpayers a single dime.”

The Land Claim Settlement bill also includes language to address the nuclear hazards that those who live on the reservation have faced.

Buck is quoted in the press release stating:

“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.”

The bill states:

“There is only one improved and maintained road leading on and off of the island, and it is shared by the Prairie Island Reservation and the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant. The road crosses a busy rail corridor at grade and so can be and is often blocked by railroad traffic. As a result, the Tribe’s entire reservation is under constant threat of nuclear contamination and the means of escape is limited.”

Buck stressed in both the press release and interview with the Republican Eagle that she and the tribal council are thankful for the work that has been put into this bill.

“I just know we worked really hard over the last probably four years to try to get this bill to fruition and do our due diligence to work with the surrounding communities and gather their support and I can’t tell you how grateful we are for Representatives Craig, Hagedorn and McCollum to be brave enough to take a bill like this and introduce it for us."