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,'” said Tribal Council President Shelley Buck. “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 temprary closing of the casino 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.

Prairie Island Indian Community purchased 1,200 acres on the edge of Pine Island in December and is seeking to place the land into trust, making it an official reservation.

"Our first goal is housing," she said in July. "That’s why we bought the land — housing."

The Prairie Island Indian Community has just more than 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.”

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.”