DAY 23 – WEDNESDAY, JULY 31

SAINT PAUL TO PRESCOTT
PRESCOTT TO THE PRAIRIE ISLAND INDIAN COMMUNITY

Tom and I arrived at Lambert’s Landing in Saint Paul, Minnesota to begin the ride out of the city. We decided on a bike only day, due to time constraints and the extended mileage getting to two communities in one day. I was a bit daunted by the several miles of urban cycling that got me going, but eventually I reached the trail at Kaposia Park, thinking it would take me all the way to Prescott, Wisconsin.

Nearly 18 miles in, however, I reached the end of the line—something of a trail head with benches and an interpretive sign about the MRT, but still only one way in and out, and no way forward. Needless to say, this put us behind, as I scrambled to get a hold of Tom and he and I both waded through the brush and undergrowth to find each other. Eventually the decision was made to get me in the van and on to Prescott so as not to be too late for the 11am community meeting there, and so Tom took over on the bike to finish the last 15 miles.

As I drove up to Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center at Freedom Park, Sean Scallon from the Prescott Journal was sitting outside, poised to take a photo of Relay as we ran in—I hope he wasn’t too disappointed to see the van instead of bodies on foot. Inside a small group was gathered: Sally West, a local resident who lives along the river, Jean Johnson who moved to Prescott and established roots there because of the river, Dallas Eggers, a self-proclaimed river rat and former tow boat pilot, and Ken Rowan, a former farmer who “traded dirt for water” when his first barge job in Prescott in the 1970s changed his life.

I’d like to tell you more of Ken’s story, and I will soon. And I’d like to learn more about Sally and Jean too, but that will take a return trip to Prescott. This Wednesday, unfortunately, had to be short visit, as I was due at the Tipsy Turtle just outside of the Prairie Island Indian Communityreservation in Welch, Minnesota. There I met up with Tom, who had cycled in. 

Tom was sharing a beer with a couple of card dealers from the casino – Wade and his friend – who work the tables from 2AM-10AM. Melissa Childs was just wrapping up her shift behind the bar and Kris came in after her. 

Turtle was the designated rendezvous for our police escort into the reservation, and there we were fetched by Amy Ransom, Rayanna Lennes, Schyler Martin, and others, commencing the caravan of sqad SUV, Tom on bike, golf cart carrying the two ladies, me in the Relay Van, followed by another police vehicle!

We arrived at the Marina overlooking beach and water—a side flow of the Mississippi River coming around a small island interrupting the view to the main channel. There we walked onto the beach and spoke at length with Schyler about the Emergency Management Plans for the island. Unlike other reservations, Prairie Island is the only Indian Community both on an island and within the two mile radius of a nuclear power plant. If something were to go wrong at the plant, there’s no good answer for the reservation. However, that’s not the only threat these Dakota people face. Lock and Dam Number 3 was placed just downriver, cordoning off some of their land along the Mississippi, and the corps of engineers only manages the dam for navigational purposes—that is, water levels are only evaluated for the purpose of getting boats through, and sometimes, oftentimes, this can lead to flooding out the communities nearby. In this case, the reservation. 

This year Prairie Island has had to fight back high water since the spring. There were talks of evacuation, with a reality of not knowing where people would go. This same reality looms very large in the conversation over a nuclear disaster and having to relocate the entire reservation for two years or more in the worst case scenario. These are questions left unanswered. 

After this sobering conversation, we were hurried over to the administration building to meet with some of the council members. We learned about the reservation “BC” or before casino, that is, before the Dakota people had a voice and agency, power to defend themselves from things like the Nuclear Power Plant and the Lock and Damn taking land from the reservation and putting what they had left at great risk. Council member Johnny Johnson spoke of growing up without running water, digging four holes for outhouses to get his family through winter. The changes to Prairie Island since gaming has grown up and flourished are felt by everyone at the reservation, even providing college tuition for every young community member if they want it. 

The return of the Buffalo is perhaps the most beautiful story we heard and saw while on the reservation on Wednesday. Buffalo are not just food for the Dakota, not just hide for clothing and shelter. But buffalo are considered family, brethren sharing the land and the resources that life draws upon. Both buffalo and native people were nearly driven to extinction by white men at a certain point in history, and now, thanks to reinvigoration of the Dakota community through gaming, the Dakota have had the opportunity to also reinvigorate the buffalo population as well as expand their land base by purchasing land that has vested meaning for the Prairie Island Community. 

We rode out in the back of a pick-up with a group of others to where the buffalo are herded. 37 in all at present. Some calves, some heifers, some bulls. These are majestic animals, ancient, like the first people themselves—ancient not in years necessarily but in time. I often run over the St. Croix River into a pasture of cows, and they look me straight in the eyes as I pass them by. These buffalo also looked me head on, but the gaze was somewhere far away, distant, set deep in the back of my skull like they were reading me from the inside out. Paul and Rich explained the logistics of raising the buffalo, and the rest gathered shared the short versions of their stories as well, including Noah and Franky from Historic Preservation, Dale who was visiting, Nancy from the Corps of Engineers, and of course our hosts Amy and Ray.

To finish off the day, we were treated to an amazing meal at the Tradewinds Buffet—an integral part of the Treasure Island Resort & Casino—where anything you can imagine is available for consumption, and in abundance. I had ribs and Mac and cheese plus a small scoop of ice cream for desert. But of the 12 or 15 gathered with us, I think we might have sampled one of everything, including the pickled herring, lutefisk, enchiladas, liver and onions, roast beef, and more. Tom and I split the table between us, and while he kept up a lively conversation with Schyler, Amy, Ray, and Paul about the Minnesota State Fair and fry bread, I dug down deep with Franky and Noah about their historic preservation work on Barn Bluff in Red Wing, Minnesota, among other projects working to restore heritage and respect to their land and people.

The night was at a close, and while Amy gave us a tour of the lazy river and the swim up bar that the hotel had to offer, Tom and I never quite made it down to enjoy those offerings. It was writing and sleeping that consumed our night. One more night. One more day. So many more stories.