Fire and Heat at Praire Island
by John Shepard
This essay was first broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio, March 11, 1994

(Webmaster's note: Prairie Island is a Mdewakanton Dakota Indian Reservation on the banks of the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minnesota) 

A year and a half ago I spent a couple of hot August days camped out at Prairie Island. Actually, the shelter provided by the trailer home in Joe Campbell's back yard might not exactly qualify as camping, but it certainly was at the heart of Prairie Island. 

If I had lobbed a baseball in one direction it would have landed on the roof of the bustling Treasure Island Casino. A well-hit line-drive the other way might have almost cleared the fence of the NSP [Northern States Power Co.] nuclear power plant, whose two brown reactors stood like fat grain silos at the far end of an open field. And hiding just out of sight past the dry grass and the heavy green trees lay the backwater channels of the Mississippi, the greatest river in the land. 
Praire Island nuclear power pland & surroundings
Lock & dam no. 3 (foreground), the NSP Prairie Island nuclear power plant (top right) and reservation buildings (far top right). Photo courtesy Army Corp of Engineers. 

The constellation of these three landmarks captured my imagination when I first heard about Prairie Island. Their co-existence in such a small corner of the universe almost seemed to pose a riddle--guess what these three things have in common: a nuclear power plant, an Indian reservation casino and the greatest river in North America. The only answer I could think of was a non-answer: Prairie Island. 

Then I heard about another Prairie Island institution--a Friday night sweat lodge ceremony that welcomed visitors--and that made a visit to this unlikely community irresistible. A group of eight high school students were camping with me at Joe Campbell's place. Joe kindly offered us his trailer when I told him over the phone that we were interested in learning about life at Prairie Island. I called Joe because he was the only person living at Prairie Island whom I'd met. He also happened to be the reservation's most active anti-nuclear organizer. I told Joe we wanted to find out how people on the reservation felt about NSP's plans to store radioactive waste in steel casks on the banks of the Mississippi in their back yard. I told him I had arranged a visit to the power plant with the folks at NSP. I also told him we were interested in joining the Friday night sweat. 

Joe said he didn't know much about the sweat lodge, but he'd be happy to show us around. He was waiting for us when we arrived at his place just before dark. With his graying sideburns and receding hairline he looked about fifty. He had a gentle face and soft hands. He wore blue jeans and a blue denim western-style shirt rolled up to the elbows. On his feet were a pair of unlaced work boots. 

Joe & studentsWe followed a meandering path behind Joe's house through a maze of tools, lumber, a few pieces of heavy equipment, a motorcycle, a snowmobile, a hot tub, and we settled into the trailer. Joe began telling tales. He described growing up at Prairie Island in the decades before nuclear power and reservation casinos--back when the quiet was so pervasive that on hot summer nights he could tell which of his neighbors were driving the roads by the distinctive sounds of their cars. He told stories about fishing and hunting and about some of Prairie Island's native plants. He left the impression that his sensitivities were as highly developed for his animal and vegetable neighbors as they were for his human ones. 

The next day, after a formal lecture on the basic physics of nuclear power by an NSP engineer, Joe led us on a tour of the reservation. We drove through publicly accessible portions of NSP's property and saw the now-wooded ground where, Joe said, NSP planned to build its storage casks. 

As Joe stood on the banks of the Mississippi, the waves glistening under a hazy sun, he shared his concerns about NSP's plans. He feared that nuclear waste stored in outdoor casks would significantly raise cancer risks for him and his neighbors and would damage the Prairie Island environment. Before we left he gave us a news clipping on a Minnesota Health Department study that determined radioactive gasses at the power plant created cancer risks that were six times greater for the Prairie Island Dakota than for the rest of the state's population. 

Click here to see enlargement of Prairie Island burial mound map (250k). 

We visited the graveyard of the church where members of Joe's family are buried. We also hiked along a rise near several burial mounds that overlooked the Mississippi. The presence of the mounds, according to archaeological evidence, indicates that Prairie Island was a home for Native Americans about the time of the birth of Christ. 

That evening we said our farewells to Joe and followed his directions to the site of the sweat lodge. Joe had prepared us with packages of cigarettes to present as offerings of thanks and he had coached us to bring food to share when the sweat was over. 

It was a long evening, rich in ceremony that was largely foreign to me. Our group was welcomed and divided by gender so that we could be tutored by someone of our own sex regarding what to expect and what was expected of us in this ceremony of purification. People continued to arrive--Indians and non-Indians, from the reservation and from the Twin Cities. The atmosphere was friendly and quietly reflective. A pot luck dinner grew with each arrival as dishes were spread out on warming plates in a nearby dome-shaped building to be eaten when the sweat was over. 

Just before dusk a large fire was set on the meticulously cleaned ground in front of the sweat lodge--a squat dome-shaped structure supported by branches and covered with cloth. There was considerable ritual, much of it accompanied by a Dakota refrain that was translated to us as meaning, "All of my Relations." 

At last, well past dark, as the casino traffic continued in a steady stream on the nearby highway, we entered the pitch dark sweat lodge. There were so many of us that we pressed nearly on top of each other to fit everyone in. Once we were in place, rocks glowing like embers from the heat of the fire outside were placed one by one in a circle in the middle of the lodge. 

People offered up heartfelt prayers in the darkness. They prayed for those who were sick and in trouble and for themselves. Every prayer was answered by the refrain, "All my relations." The thick and heavy heat washed over me in waves. My hunched back and my cramped legs ached, but I felt calm inside--as if my own discomfort was supported somehow by those around me. 

Then suddenly, with no warning, a huge mechanical roar filled our tiny space and the ground shook beneath us. For a moment I was completely disoriented--not sure what this earth-shaking, enraged presence was or from where it had come. Then, as suddenly, I knew. It was a train racing past the sweat lodge on tracks no more than twenty yards away. The sensation jolted me into an acute awareness of where I was. 

I was at one end of the universe, in a small, dark enclosure, being cleansed by the heat of the sun. About a mile away, at the other end of the universe, in a similarly dome-like structure, the heat from another sun was burning hotter still. 

Click here to learn more about John Shepard

Center for Global Environmental Education
Hamline University Graduate School of Education
1536 Hewitt Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55104-1284
Phone: 651-523-2480 Fax: 651-523-2987
© 2001 CGEE. All Rights Reserved.