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Tribal leaders old and new

Nicole Lehto recites the oath of office with Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Court Judge B.J. Jones. Samantha Bengs / RiverTown Multimedia

The Prairie Island Indian Community gathered to celebrate leaders, experienced and newly-elected. Melanie Urich and Nicole Lehto joined Shelley Buck, Johnny Johnson and Lu Taylor at the Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Council swearing-in ceremony Dec. 13 at Treasure Island Resort and Casino.

Urich joins the tribal council with 20 years of federal services — with the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She also spent time in Washington, D.C., as a congressional intern for the late Minnesota congressman Martin Sabo.

"I can promise confidently that I will take as many opportunities that exist to make a positive difference in the lives of everyone in this room and beyond," Urich said to crowd of 350 attendees.

Urich will serve as assistant secretary and treasurer.

Lehto, a native of Prairie Island, said being elected to the tribal council is an absolute honor. Lehto thanked family, friends and community members for her upbringing, saying how proud she is of the growth Prairie Island has made in its history.

"My grandmas were like all the iron women and warriors in this community and our descendents. They were powerful. Amidst the heartache, they always had hope," she said.

Lehto will serve as secretary during her first term on council.

"It's a privilege to work with legacy leaders like Shelley, Johnny and Lu who have already made such strides, and I am so grateful and happy to be learning alongside Melanie," Lehto added.

Returning tribal council members

Buck was elected to her third consecutive term as president and fourth term overall.

"Part of our culture is looking out for the next seven generations. We as a council have to keep that in mind with each decision that comes before us," Buck said. "Our ancestors sacrificed and endured much, and because of those sacrifices, we are able to have what we have today."

Buck reported on recent successes of the tribe, highlighting a recent hotel addition to Treasure Island Resort and Casino, which made the resort the second largest hotel in Minnesota. Treasure Island is also the largest employer in Goodhue County, providing more than 1,600 jobs.

"I want to make our ancestors proud. I want to continue that success," Buck said. "I want to make sure our next seven generations are taken care of."

Johnson will continue as treasurer in his 12th tribal council term.

"As I look at the past and now the present, we've come from a quiet community to a large voice, now today on the state and federal level," Johnson said. "I am inspired to continue to fight for our sovereignty and to tell those at the Capitol in D.C. and the state Capitol in Minnesota, we will not go away. We will continue to fight issues and racism in today's world."

Johnson stressed the importance of standing together to tribal members in attendance.

"With your great ideas and expertise, we will become even stronger in dealing with growth and keeping our culture alive."

Vice President Taylor was re-elected, now entering her ninth term on tribal council.

"It doesn't matter who serves or how many terms they have been on," she said. "What matters is their dedication, determination, integrity, honesty, beliefs, common sense and wanting to make a difference by contributing yourself to this tribe."

Taylor acknowledged the hard work of Prairie Island and Treasure Island staff, critical to the success of the tribe. She also praised her family, specifically her grandmothers and aunts who taught her the act of selflessness toward others.

"Prairie Island started with women who have become the backbone and heartbeat of families of this tribe. Without women, we wouldn't exist. Women are sacred because they are a giver of life."

Taylor said the importance of strong women in the community continues today.