RED WING -- On the bumpy streets of the Prairie Island Indian Community, children on golf carts and scooters whip about the little knot of houses at the center of the reservation.
Although the homes are modest two-story affairs, many have shiny ATVs and sport utility vehicles parked out front, evidence of the money casino gambling has brought to the reservation.
But there's no recreational vehicle parked outside Lylis Warhol's house. There's a sweat lodge, and inside, a packed bookshelf is testament to how Warhol has used her share of casino profits.
"I bought all the books on Native American history the historical society had," Warhol said.
Despite the recent economic success in this tiny Mdewakanton Dakota community, about a 20-minute drive northwest of Red Wing, elders remember the days when they played with old tires as children on the gravel roads of a destitute reservation that didn't have electrical lights. Perhaps that's why Warhol, and others, hesitate to embrace the casino wealth.
They worry that the casino will wither, not unreasonable given the Legislature's recent flirtation with entering the business. They say it's critical to invest in education and to look for new economic development opportunities -- no easy task given their limited land and the nearby nuclear plant.
"Just leave us alone and let us catch up to the rest of society," said Darelynn Lehto, who serves on Prairie Island's four-person tribal council.
Nestled along the Mississippi River on 600 sandy acres -- about half of it habitable -- the Prairie Island Indian Community is one of the smallest of Minnesota's 11 Indian bands. It was incorporated just 67 years ago.
But the Dakota have lived on these forested bluffs for centuries. For the most part, tribal elders say Prairie Island kept to itself while communities like Red Wing and Hastings flourished on the other side of the railroad tracks.
"We've always been a tribe of leave them alone," said Freeman Johnson, a longtime leader of the band.
These days, Prairie Island is easy to find. Just follow the clouds billowing from a pair of nuclear reactors nearby.
Since Xcel Energy (then known as Northern States Power) arrived three decades ago, tribal leaders say Prairie Island has changed alongside their nuclear neighbor. Nobody wants to swim in the river anymore. Medicinal herbs that were collected for generations no longer grow. In Warhol's backyard, she says, a haze obscures the cherries.
Tribal members describe an electrical field that causes hair to stand up and gives shocks to children on the reservation's playground.
"You can feel it," Victoria Winfrey said, looking out the window at the power lines that stretch across the reservation. "You always hear the hum -- all the time."
There's no proof that the nuclear plant is to blame for any of this, but the tribal council says there's no proof it isn't. They say Xcel officials never mentioned nuclear power when they pitched a steam-generation facility decades ago, and it's been a battle since.
Xcel said it didn't decide to make it a nuclear plant until the 1960s -- roughly a decade after it first looked at the land a half-mile outside the reservation. Doing so included public notice and co-operation with Prairie Island on things like roads, Xcel spokeswoman Laura McCarten said.
Prairie Island has hired a contractor for what it calls the reservation's first thorough health study. It was part of an agreement earlier this year with Xcel to support the expansion of nuclear waste stored at the plant until 2014. The health study will take several years.
McCarten doesn't discount health worries by Prairie Island members, but she said studies have failed to link things like cancer and nuclear plants. Both the state and Xcel monitor the plant closely for radiation, with conservatively low thresholds for detection, she said.
"We're very confident we're not posing a health risk," she said.
Despite the nuclear plant, residents at Prairie Island say they have no plans to leave. In fact, more band members than ever want to return, keeping the reservation busy building units with nearly 100 families on a waiting list for a home.
About 170 of the band's 647 members currently live at Prairie Island.
"We live here. Whether there's danger or not, we live here," said Louie Foote, whose home is across the street from the tribe's community center and yards from the plant.
The Dakota were once widespread across Minnesota until pushed southward in battles with the Ojibwe two centuries ago. After white settlers arrived, treaties in the mid-1800s pushed the Dakota westward into a reservation along the Minnesota River.
Food, money and other provisions were promised by the federal government but never received, leading to the Dakota uprising of 1862. Hundreds of people were killed, treaties were voided and President Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota men hanged in Mankato in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Another 1,700 Dakota were imprisoned at Fort Snelling and eventually shipped to the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota. Back in Minnesota, a bounty was placed on Dakota scalps.
Through it all, there were Dakota who never left Prairie Island, band members say. And in 1936, the federal government officially recognized the Prairie Island Indian Community.
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