Soggy, but home: Prairie Island gets its land back

Returned land
Prairie Island's land now encompasses Sturgeon Lake and the islands that buffer the lake from the Mississippi River. None of the land has been disturbed since the U.S. Army Corp of Engineer's constructed Lock and Dam Number 3 in 1934
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

It's startlingly peaceful on Sturgeon Lake, part of Parcel D. The lake hugs a string of tiny islands that separate it from the Mississippi River. This and some prairie land are part of the acreage that make up Parcel D. It's a narrow stretch of waterways and wetland forest that border the community's present reservation.

Eagle habitat
A number of eagles make their home in the area. Ron Johnson says they are particularly important to the community.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Ronald Johnson is the Prairie Island Tribal Council's Assistant Secretary Treasurer. He says the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers allowed the tribal members to use the land. But after decades of negotiation and effort the land is theirs again.

"How much history is buried in these bluffs here," Johnson asks. "Nobody knows actually what is lying in these bluffs here. Nobody can actually tell you that unless you can turn back the clock or talk to an elder. A lot of our elders know it and we rely on our elders and we respect our elders."

Johnson says after the Dakota Conflict in 1862 the federal government banished most Native people from this area. Eventually some returned. Johnson remembers his grandmother living on one of the islands.

"My grandma used to live down on Buffalo Slough here in an old shack that had pump water in the house it had an outhouse as a restroom," he says.

Under Buffalo Slough and Sturgeon Lake are over 18 village sites, three ancient villages and 1,500 burial mounds. But Johnson says the community has no intention of dredging it or building another casino. This is sacred ground.

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"I think just leaving it rest the way it is, just like our burial mounds, we have burial mounds," he says. "We do not bother those. I mean that's sacred land, we just let them be, let them rest and don't bother those."

Broadleaf Arrowhead
Broadleaf Arrowhead can be found all over Parcel D. It's also called tule potato. Many Native American tribes ate the root like a potato. It is also used to treat indigestion and rheumatism.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Parcel D will continue to serve as a habitat for wildlife. Community members will hunt and fish. And some will continue to gather medicinal plants, like Broadleaf Arrowhead. Its tuberous roots were used as food and as a remedy for indigestion and headaches.

The parcel is also home to a number of eagles' nests. Johnson says they have a special connection to Prairie Island.

"We've had an eagle's nest out here on Sturgeon Lake Road," Johnson says. "It went down twice and they rebuilt in that one tree and then last March we had that heavy snow storm. It took the nest down.

"I think the most inspiring thing I've ever seen is there was eagles flying around the entire time. And you knew something had happened. And I think everyone's fear was they were going to leave because they've been through a lot here with storms and losing their nest. And just that soon they built their nest."

Johnson likens the eagles' return to the Prairie Island Indian Community's history. He says the community has been roughed up over the years. A nuclear plant, a railway and a barge crossing all border the land. But he says tribal members don't give up. They grow stronger.

Lilypads on Parcel D
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Joe Halloran serves as special council to the tribe. He can't say why the county, city and federal government were finally willing to return the land. He counts it as a victory though a sad one.

"What this community lost in the last 150 years can't be underestimated," Halloran says. "It's significant. But I think that the community has been waiting for the fulfillment of this promise and the return of this land for a long time. And the ceremony welcoming the ancestors home may well be a solemn one moreso than a joyous one, or a mix. There's a real loss."

Halloran adds that tribal members promised their elders they would see the land returned, and keep its history alive. He says the significance of fulfilling that promise can't be underestimated.