Conversation

Prairie Island Indian Community powering seven generations with clean energy

$46 million net zero project begins

Perseverance & Courage

 

In early 2021, Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Council President Shelley Buck and General Counsel Jessie Stomski Seim joined us to discuss Prairie Island’s energy story and how the Tribe fought for and won a $46 million appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature to support the Prairie Island Net Zero Project.

They share how tribal culture, seven generations, and storytelling motivate this work, outline the process that has led Prairie Island to this point, talk about their hopes for robust community engagement in the project’s next phase, and offer encouragement for other tribal nations considering ambitious clean energy work.

Photo: Prairie Island has grown their buffalo herd since 1992 to provide bison meat for community members.

 

Listen to the conversation or read it below.

Both the audio and write-up have been edited for length and clarity.

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Prairie Island is an example of taking what is really forced upon them as a negative energy story as essentially a victim. They have turned around and put themselves in a place of power—a new story of energy that is going to be fantastic. That to me is a story of perseverance and courage.

Jessie Stomski Seim, General Counsel, Prairie Island Indian Community

Marie Donahue: Before we get started, we want to acknowledge that Minnesota, where we are recording this podcast and where our audience is largely based, is located on traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of Indigenous people. That these lands were cared for and called home by the Dakota, Anishinaabe, and Northern Cheyenne peoples, and other Native peoples since time immemorial.

With this land acknowledgment, we honor, respect, and affirm tribal sovereignty and will work to hold ourselves and our partners accountable to American Indian peoples and nations. Specifically, we’re looking forward to our conversation with leaders from the Prairie Island Indian Community today to support and raise awareness about the Tribe’s ongoing efforts to advance a clean energy future through the Prairie Island Net Zero Project

Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Council President Shelley Buck and General Counsel Jessie Stomski Seim, thank you both so much for joining us today and sharing the story of this exciting project. To start, could each of you introduce yourselves and share both the work that you do and how your backgrounds and paths led you to your roles representing the Prairie Island Indian Community?

PresidentBuckHeadshot.pngPresident Shelley Buck: I’m President Shelley Buck, I'm the President of the Prairie Island Indian Community. I am a tribal member, so that led me to my path. I grew up in Indiana in a small town and got my bachelor's degree in accounting at Indiana University. Go Hoosiers! Jessie and I were both Big 10, so we're always competing there. But I didn't grow up in a culture. I grew up with my non-Native mother in Indiana. I decided I wanted my kids to grow up in the culture. So, I moved them up here, and I also wanted to work for the Tribe and eventually to be on Council. 

That's what we did. We moved up here about 14 or 15 years ago now. And I've worked for the Tribe or been on Council since I moved up here. I haven't worked for anyone else. My goal is, even if I end up working outside of the Tribe, I want it to be in a job where I can help push tribal issues and tribal concerns.

JessieSeim.pngJessie Stomski Seim: Good afternoon! I’m Jessie Stomski Seim, and I am a Citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. I graduated from UW-Madison—so “Go Badgers!” respectfully President Buck—and then I played basketball professionally for years. Then I went to law school at what was then William Mitchell, I graduated and worked for one of the largest firms here in the Twin Cities doing a variety of work but then decided to focus where my heart and my passion and who, I am is, and that is representing Tribes and tribal interests, so I moved over to a small boutique Indian law firm. As of five years ago, approximately, I have had the honor of joining the Prairie Island Indian Community as their general counsel and, in that role, get to work with President Buck and her fellow council members and the community, overseeing the legal department, government relations and government affairs for the Tribe.

A lot of my desire to do this comes from my kids. My kids have taught me a lot. They’re really opening my mind to what can be. And the Tribe itself has been talking about solar panels and windmills for so many years that the idea of doing this larger project is so exciting. It's made me see the bigger picture.

Tribal Council President Shelley Buck, Prairie Island Indian Community

Marie Donahue: Can you each describe your personal motivations and any experience you each have had working to advance energy and environmental justice-related projects or policy?

 

President Shelley Buck: I'm right on that cusp where people didn't really care—of the generations where people didn't really take into consideration the environment. All this stuff wasn't a thought. Now, this generation, it's really their thing. I'm somewhere in the middle. Growing up, we used to recycle newspapers, and that was all we did. We didn't do anything else or think about anything else. As I grew older, people started to recycle. Now, we recycle plastics and cans and papers.

Actually my knowledge—a lot of my desire to do this comes from my kids. My kids have taught me a lot. They’re really opening my mind to what can be. And the Tribe itself has been talking about solar panels and windmills for so many years that the idea of doing this larger project is so exciting. It's made me see the bigger picture.

Even with the community garden—we have a Green Team that does a lot of work with the [Treasure Island] Casino, as well as with composting and recycling. At the Casino, we were using products that were harmful to the environment, so the Council, we told the Casino, “Even though it costs more, it's time to get cardboard or paper containers for the food. It's time to start looking at more environmentally conscious products” Instead of what we have been using for many years.

 

Jessie Stomski Seim: I might be a bit unique among the guests on your show. I don't have a ton of environmental or clean energy experience, candidly. Before coming to Prairie Island, I worked in my legal career on issues that would raise environmental matters, but nothing head-on.

When I came to Prairie Island, the nuclear power plant, which the Tribe is literally under—about 700 feet from the nearest home—is the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant and is located on the island that the Tribe is on. The history of what the Tribe faces is unique in the entire country. No other human beings are that close to nuclear waste or an operating nuclear plant. With Xcel Energy [which owns and operates the nuclear plant], there is not currently bad blood there. There's a relationship there. But the fact remains that this Tribe must bear the burden of that potential catastrophic event every moment of every day on their ancestors’ land and on where the tribe lives and breathes and operates its businesses today.

That was something that I, in order to represent them, had to quickly understand, and I'm continuing to learn about it. It's a big issue. Coupled with that is the opportunity for net zero, which we will discuss in detail today. This has really given me personally an opportunity to learn about this field and to try to expand the opportunity for Prairie Island and all tribes, hopefully, when looking at the bigger picture.

The history of what the Tribe faces is unique in the entire country. No other human beings are that close to nuclear waste or an operating nuclear plant. With Xcel Energy, there is not bad blood there. There's a relationship there. But the fact remains that this Tribe must bear the burden of that potential catastrophic event every moment of every day on their ancestors’ land and on where the tribe lives and breathes and operates its businesses today.

Jessie Stomski Seim, General Counsel, Prairie Island Indian Community

AerialNuclearShot.jpg

Photo: Located 30 miles southeast of the Twin Cities along the Mississippi River, the Prairie Island Indian Community is among the closest communities in the nation to a nuclear power plant and nuclear waste storage site, pictured here next to Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant.

Marie Donahue: Wonderful, thank you for that context and introduction to this project and the motivations for it too. So, next we did want to dig into the main topic of today's conversation: the Prairie Island Net Zero Project

President Buck you have said that this project “has the power to change the narrative and use energy production as a force for good.” How did the Tribe first come to envision and advocate for a net zero community? What values, narrative, or stories help ground this work?

 

Jessie Stomski Seim: This is the story of her people so President Buck, please go ahead.

 

President Shelley Buck: Thank you. We've been talking, like I said earlier, about different things that we could do. Little things that we could do on Prairie Island: solar panels on the casino roof, looking into windmills. We were looking at things like these back in my first term on Council, which was 11 or 12 years ago. At that time, it's amazing to see how far the industry has come in 12 years. We don't produce enough wind down on Prairie Island for windmills, plus there are some issues with windmills that as a native person I have concerns about. Then, solar panels at that time, our roof wouldn't be able to sustain the ones back then. They were too heavy. So, there were all these different problems. So, we said, “Let's just keep looking at this.” And each time we would look at different things and nothing really seemed to fit.

So as far as this [Prairie Island Net Zero] project, we are getting the money from the RDA [Renewable Development Account] fund—which used to be the RDF. We weren't able to apply for grants through that program before because we are not Xcel customers. It wasn't until a few years ago, when they changed the RDF to the RDA, that they included a provision where Prairie Island could apply for these funds, since we're the ones that are shouldering the majority of the burden for this. When we had the ability to do that, we started to think bigger: “Why don't we just become net zero and see what's involved with that?” We really got excited to look into it.

For us as Native people, it's our job to be stewards—good stewards of the land and the environment. We have a connection with everything. We don't just see the land as something we can farm. We don't see the animals as something we can shoot and eat. We have a connection with them. They each have their own soul, their own lives, their own spirit. To be able to help protect that, we're hoping that with this project we're able to come up with something that other people, other tribes, other areas, and other states look to for ways to improve how they treat the environment.

We only have one planet. Our job is to look out for the next seven generations. What are we going to leave the next seven generations? It needs to be something that they can survive on. And that’s currently not the case. It’s my job as a Dakota leader to look out for the next seven generations. Every decision I make has to take that into account. How is it going to affect the next seven generations? I know I keep saying seven generations, but it's that important. It has to be thought of.

This is just a perfect project for that. We're excited about it. Initially, I wasn’t sure because it's going to be a lot of work, and we don't have anybody that's really that experienced in this field. So I wondered what we were doing. But we are getting support. We had interviews with the top candidates and all of them gave me so much excitement to see where this can go. It’s cool, I'm excited for it now.

We only have one planet. Our job is to look out for the next seven generations. What are we going to leave the next seven generations?

Tribal Council President Shelley Buck, Prairie Island Indian Community

Peter Lindstrom: Well, I tell you, it is extremely cool. As we started this conversation, there's been a lot of work done so far, including a lot of work at the legislature, to get the $46 million appropriated in the first place. I'd love to hear more about the negotiations that took place and the legislative process. Clearly a lot of work was done to be successful at the end of the day, with this $46 million appropriation.

 

President Shelley Buck: Jessie was our key negotiator on that front.

 

Jessie Stomski Seim: Well, there was a team of us. But to understand what happened there, it’s important to understand the context that President Buck laid out. The fact that for Prairie Island—a horrible energy story was forced upon them, in 1973 when the nuclear power plant was built without consultation, without discussion with the Tribe, whose homeland was that tiny island. And if you are a Tribal member or if you spend any time learning about the history of tribes, one thing you will know for certain is that the notion of environmental injustice is everywhere. This is a prime example of environmental injustice. I feel strongly that if this were to be the sighting of a power plant like this on top of a reservation—if that were to happen today, it would be a Standing Rock-type event. I would like to believe it would never happen again. I would like to hope that.

So that story—you can't tell the Net Zero story without that—because, as President Buck said this money was required to be put in the RDA to try to motivate us to not rely on nuclear power. The purpose of this was to generate new ideas—new sources of energy and innovation. There have been a lot of efforts to take money from that pot and use it for other things and that has increased in recent years.

Prairie Island became eligible to seek funds, but they saw this fund was being raided for purposes that were unrelated to the original goals. And so Prairie Island took it upon themselves to create a project that would benefit them—those who bear all of the risk or a lot of the risk of the nuclear power effort. To do something that was well within the parameters of the RDA, as so Prairie Island developed this concept that would change their energy story from that of a victim and from threat mitigation to an empowering story and an innovative story. One that will change the energy future for Prairie Island.

One of my favorite parts of this story is that Native people and tribes have always lived in harmony with nature and harvested from nature in all different ways to benefit our people and our communities. That is what I think the vision for the Prairie Island Net Zero Project is, as well. It's harvesting the resources of whatever it is—the sun, thermal, whatever will end up being in this project, but doing it in harmony. Doing it in a way that will help Prairie Island thrive.

I think it’s an opportunity to have a blueprint for Native communities and others, to go from, as President Buck, said from zero in this field or little bitty efforts to something much more cohesive or to a complete net zero system.

We brought all of these ideas to the legislature. We were clear that this wasn't a shovel ready project. We are very much in development and in the building blocks of this project now. I believe that the representatives saw in this an opportunity—not just for Prairie Island and not just to recognize the situation and this energy issue that the Island was facing—but that there are a lot of communities out there that need to learn how to go from zero to 100. This was an opportunity for the greater State of Minnesota and elsewhere to figure out how to do this, which was exactly what this pot of money with the RDA is for.

Those were part of the discussions. We had a lot of support at the legislature. We had a lot of great conversations, and a lot of excitement. It took a few sessions to get through it because we got caught up in some macro politics, and that's just the name of the game sometimes. But we really feel like we have a lot of supporters, a lot of believers, and a lot of partners at the State of Minnesota.

I believe that the representatives saw in this an opportunity—not just for Prairie Island and not just to recognize the situation and this energy issue that the Island was facing—but that there are a lot of communities out there that need to learn how to go from zero to 100. This was an opportunity for the greater State of Minnesota and elsewhere to figure out how to do this.

Jessie Stomski Seim, General Counsel, Prairie Island Indian Community

LeadershipwithWalzandFlannagan.jpg

Photo: Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Council President Shelley Buck, Vice President Lucy Taylor, and General Counsel Jessie Stomski Seim, among others, meet with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan.

Peter Lindstrom: Fantastic, and I love how you alluded to how the solutions are not all set in concrete. There's going to be a process to find out how you can be more energy efficient or utilize renewables. Now that you do have the money secured, what are the next phases in this important project?

 

President Shelley Buck: We need to get the team on board that we're going to be consulting with and start the planning process. This project will start with getting the data from the past years, so the team can see what's going on. Then having community meetings with our community members, our tribal members, and others. We want to see what everybody wants and needs. We really want to include the community. It needs to be a community-based program. Just like with policing, when you have the community buy-in, it goes so much more successfully than if you hadn't. A lot of the time will be spent on that piece.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic makes that more difficult, but we'll have to be doing virtual meetings and maybe, if we can later do in-person meetings. If we’re able to space people out, or maybe they’ll have to sign up to be part of the group. We’d have different sessions for more people to be involved. I think that key community component is what's the most important right now.

One of my big things is to see an educational piece to this, for our younger people who would be or who are interested in this field. I'm hoping through this process, we’ll start to garner more support and more of our tribal members who are interested in it. That our younger ones will want to get an education or be a part of this and learn to be able to run the program once it's completed and to work in it. To do whatever repairs or maintenance that are needed to be done. I see this as a huge opportunity for all of us.

Then, once the planning is completed, we can get moving on finding vendors to make this plan a reality for us.

This project will start with getting the data from the past years, so the team can see what's going on. Then having community meetings with our community members, our tribal members, and others. We want to see what everybody wants and needs. We really want to include the community. It needs to be a community-based program.

Tribal Council President Shelley Buck, Prairie Island Indian Community

Jessie Stomski Seim: To add a few more things, we ran a very robust RFP process for the main partnership that we see as our guide in the clean energy universe. It was a long process that we put a lot of time into. We hope anyone involved could say it was done with a lot of integrity and a lot of thought. It resulted in what we think is a great group of organizations that we hope to announce this week with a press release, who those partners are.

President Buck, I hope I'm not saying too much, but people will see that there was an emphasis on finding partners from Indian Country. That is something that we look to always do is empower Native-owned businesses to help us achieve new and exciting things.

We also hope to really focus on having local partners, as well as we continue to build a team and into the development of this project. We have a report due to the legislature, the skeleton of a report in July. That will be our next milestone and that will be something that we will be excited to share with everyone.

There was an emphasis on finding partners from Indian Country. That is something that we always look to do: empower Native-owned businesses to help us achieve new and exciting things.

Jessie Stomski Seim, General Counsel, Prairie Island Indian Community

Editor's Note

 

After recording this interview, Prairie Island Indian Community announced the partners it selected to help advance the Prairie Island Net Zero Project.

As part of that announcement, President Buck noted, “We found partners that not only understand how to create the right energy solution, but they also understand Native culture and the importance of what this project means to our sovereignty and our future.”

Prairie Island will be working with a team led by Indian Energy and Chief Strategy Group, both Native American-owned companies, to help create an energy system for the Tribe that results in net-zero emissions.

 

Marie Donahue: President Buck, you spoke a bit to your visions for how this project might benefit the Prairie Island Indian Community, starting from community members and some of the households through education or job development, perhaps. But then, all the way to the Tribe at large. I'm curious, are there any of these categories of benefits that you hope to look at to measure the success of this program over time?

 

President Shelley Buck: Obviously I'd like to see this grow. It'll be steps obviously. We're not going to be able to get this all done in one swoop, but you know steps and hopefully once we get close to that in step. More things will come out in the industry, and we'll be able to continue this into more things, including the community-side on the individual homes and things to get our people to start thinking about ways that they can do things to their own homes to involve this. Whether they live on the reservation or not—that it's something that they can look for.

I'm hoping to see some programs for our kids, where even our younger little ones during summer school that we have every year, other than this past year with COVID. That they can do tours or or have little workshops, where they learn about this industry in fun ways. This isn't my side of the brain type of field. I think it's very exciting. I understand it just enough to be dangerous. But I want our kids to be able to see this as an exciting field for them to go into or just open their horizons. We get stuck in a tunnel sometimes, I think, as humans and when you're able to broaden into those fields. I think our kids will be able to see a whole different future for themselves, and who knows, maybe some of our kids will be the next people creating the new technology or the new whatever in this industry. I'm excited about it. 

I'm excited not only for the potential for our Tribe, but for the entire nation—if nothing else to see what Indian Country can do with this and improve upon it. I want us to be the start, and allow this to help other people make it even better, to do more and be more and have more. I'm excited and can't say that enough.

I think our kids will be able to see a whole different future for themselves, and who knows, maybe some of our kids will be the next people creating the new technology... in this industry.

Tribal Council President Shelley Buck, Prairie Island Indian Community

Marie Donahue: Jessie, anything you would add?

 

Jessie Stomski Seim: Just that there was a lot of excitement and support around this project, which is exciting to see. Tribes are doing a lot of cool things in energy, but we are not aware of this type of project happening [elsewhere], so we take that responsibility greatly and so do our partners. We know that there's a lot of stakeholders too. We know that there's a lot in the clean energy community, agencies of Minnesota, the people who voted for this—we know that this is something that a lot of people feel ownership for, and we want to honor that as well.

 

President Shelley Buck: I want to say thank you to everyone who has helped be a part of this. Even if it was a small part, Prairie Island didn't do this all on their own. We had to work with our partners at the state level and the legislature. We had to work with Xcel and Dakota Electric. They've all been so supportive and helpful. This is going to be, of course, a Prairie Island process and a Prairie Island project and success story. But it’s not just Prairie Island. It was a huge team effort. I always say it, but we have the best staff around, including our outside lobbying group. Everybody's been so great and they worked so hard on this. It’s been great to see that.

 

Marie Donahue: Thank you, is there anything more you’d like to add in how it’s helping the tribe reimagine what's possible in the future?

 

President Shelley Buck: I just think this is opening up a door that I personally never thought was there. A magical door that appeared that we’re now able to kick through. It's definitely opened my eyes to new things. As with our community garden and food sovereignty program, I see where this could even play into that. Where they can work together on even bigger and better things. We have a greenhouse with aquaponics that we're working on, and you know I can see that program expanding and doing more, and the possibilities are endless. I'm excited to see where we can take it and where our staff can envision new things, and our tribal members can experience or envision new things.

 

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Photo: Prairie Island's Community Garden being built, growing, and educating local youth.

 

Jessie Stomski Seim: I would be excited to see how this develops into a true community-owned project. I think when you talk about community engagement anywhere, a lot of times that ends up looking like a bunch of staff doing the work and then having a meeting with the constituents and talking about it. Seeing if there are questions or feedback. I’m hoping we can find a different model here. One that really creates ownership, a participation, and  an engagement that look different than that—that people can feel really good about.

 

President Shelley Buck: I second that. I would love to get more of our people involved in the actual work.

Peter Lindstrom: That's outstanding, and even though you're at the beginning of the process here, are there any lessons learned or best practices that you’ve utilized to date—either through the legislative process or running that robust RFP process? If you were talking to a local government or another tribal nation that you would share with them at this time?

 

President Shelley Buck: One thing I can see is don't think that you know everything or that you have to do everything. We reached out to Peter and to Xcel. No one would ever think that we would go to Xcel for help, or that they could help us with this measure, but you know we brought in partners to help us to develop the RFP process. Peter, you helped with the interviews, you asked questions that we may not know to ask because this isn't our field. We deal with so many different subjects. I can't know everything about everything, as much as I would love to and as much as I pretend like I do. You just can't, so I think you have to reach out to those people and get that extra support from experts in the field that can give you advice.

 

Jessie Stomski Seim: Through the process—we got the law passed, so what do we do now? We issue the RFP. There was a lot of thinking and a lot of work involved in every little step. Be prepared for a ton of work. I've done procurement processes that were very simple and this one was very robust. I'm really happy with the results of this, with the level of transparency and the level of communication that we had with everyone touching this all along the way. We had questions about, “How does Dakota Electric feel about this? The truth is, they have been a huge supporter, and you know I spoke to them yesterday. We've communicated the whole way. To reiterate what everyone knows, communication is key, and I feel good about where we're at in this moment and having communicated along the way, and hopefully that will continue throughout.

 

President Shelley Buck: And I would also add patience. You have to have patience with this. I'm one that when we get an idea, it’s: “Let's get it. Let's make it work. Let's get it finished. Let's go!” I would suggest that you take baby steps—baby celebrations. We've gone through the RFP process, the interview process, and we've picked our partner. That's a milestone for me that's something to go, "yay we did it," but just because I'm excited about it and I'm like, "yay," I know the job's not complete, I know that's just the small beginning, so you have to be willing to just have these tiny celebrations, knowing that you're in it for the long haul.

Marie Donahue: Great words of wisdom. If others were to take some of those and move forward into action, how do you hope this work and project, and the leadership that the Prairie Island Indian Community is taking to advance clean energy and energy sovereignty inspires action?

 

Jessie Stomski Seim: I hope that people will see that you don't have to be an expert in clean energy or in this effort in order to get started and hopefully make a change. That you can take on projects, as long as you're willing to learn and find those partners that can help you. That every city, every town, every business has to start somewhere—so don't let not knowing be a barrier to trying.

Number one for me is that Prairie Island is an example of taking what is really forced upon them as a negative energy story as essentially a victim. They have turned around and put themselves in a place of power—creating a new story of energy that is going to be fantastic. That to me is a story of perseverance and courage.

 

Photo, from left to right: Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, President Shelley Buck, U.S. Representative from Kansas Sharice Davids, Jessie Stomski Seim, and U.S. Representative from New Mexico Deb Haaland.

 

President Shelley Buck: And you can't be afraid to ask questions there's no stupid questions in this. So don't be afraid to ask questions, even if it's just a simple answer you got to be there's only one way to to know and understand and learn something and that's to ask questions.

 

Jessie Stomski Seim: Thank you for this opportunity. One of the things that's really important to us is storytelling. While you can see it [the Prairie Island Net Zero Project] as a project with its technology and big industry parts, to me, it’s just an extension of the Prairie Island story. I appreciate the opportunity to tell it from where we're at today.

Marie Donahue: We’re pleased to help in that process and to offer any other ways that we can help spread the word. On behalf of Peter, myself, and CERTs to say we are honored and grateful to be joined by you both, President Buck and Jessie, to share your perspectives and Prairie Island’s story with us today. Thank you for your time.

 

President Shelley Buck: Pidamayaye. Thank you!

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