The Dakota people on Prairie Island, between Minnesota and Wisconsin, are proud and rich and have made a life-saving raft of their history. Or at least of the history they were able to recover from all the fragments left behind by the white man's attempts to eradicate them from Earth. They are proud of their cultural center, where Wayne Wells teaches the Dakota language that he transcribes from one of the last native Dakota speakers, Wakhandi Sapa (Black Lightning), aka Curtis Campbell Sr., who was a long-time tribal chairman. Campbell's daughter, Audrey (aka President Bennett), is the first woman chief of the Tribal Council.
The Dakota are a traditional people who hold ceremonies. They perspire and sing in sweat lodges; they go on vision quests. They have small houses but big boats and fine cars. They were once nomads. They now own the Treasure Island Resort casino that finances their school and the recovery of their culture. They also live in the shadow of the Xcel Nuclear Plant, and casks of radioactive waste are stored on their doorstep. The incidence of cancer is high. The traditional diet of fish and buffalo is long gone; before the nuclear plant, they ate government food because they were so poor. Then they got diabetes, so now they are nutrition-conscious and eat like all their neighbors: fried things. One day they will have a Whole Foods Store.
Mostly, they are warm and generous people who have a lot of faith in America. Most of the men are veterans of every war this country fought and are proud of it. They also have faith in the Great Spirit and hold a ceremony where they pour spring water into the Father of Waters. They use some of their wealth to hire lawyers and lobbyists to get the casks of radioactive death removed from the island and sent to Nevada. It will be a long fight: Nevada doesn't want any more nuclear waste.
"I wear shoes made from fossil fuel, my clothes were made in China, this is just the world now. Our ancestors are with us," one of the chiefs told me. Yes, but shoes and clothes decay and return to the soil in a few years; radioactivity takes a half-million. Years. Well, that's faith -- and faith will make you accommodate the Devil -- just a little. The Devil likes gambling and is pleased to see cancers eat your body, but he gives you wealth and hope and educational tools for your people. The Prairie Island Band of Dakota has been on the verge of extinction many times. Something brought them back -- the spirit of the water, over which falls the shadow of extinction. There is only one evacuation route out of the island, and if Three Mile Island or Chernobyl happens here, there will be no one left to educate. The Xcel plant went online in 1973. It's the same vintage as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).