Nicky Buck: Talking about past, present, and future

Words by Marcia Ratliff, photographs by Cloey Jo Walsh

Sustain the conversation. Stay with discomfort.

For Nicky Buck, that’s the grind-it-out reality of creating a better future for her community, her land, and the entire region.

On a Tuesday in January, Nicky stepped out of her SUV at the Edwin Buck Jr. Memorial Buffalo Project at the Prairie Island Indian Community, just outside of Red Wing, Minn.

The bison were visible in the distance, dark brown against the patchy snow. Trumpeter swans called out from the lake and flew low over the road, their wings clicking against the gray sky.

Nicky pulled a ribbon skirt over her pants and pointed at the sign marking the entrance to the farm. Edwin Buck Jr. is her father, who passed away in 1994. Edwin was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he was a renowned paratrooper. His legs were severed in a blast, and when he came home, he carried more than just the physical wounds. He drank, and he didn’t talk about what happened, Nicky said, and his baggage stayed with her and her family.

The buffalo project sits on a wooded hill that slopes down to a small lake, with a wide pasture next to the shore. The herd, which began with a single buffalo gifted to the Prairie Island Indian Community in 1992, now has nearly 300 buffalo, and was the Tribe’s first initiative toward food sovereignty. Every month it supplies each member of the community with 10 pounds of burger meat and occasionally a roast. In the winter, the buffalo stay in smaller fenced areas, with extra hay brought in from the nearby grazing fields.

Nicky traces her work as an advocate back to her parents. “My mother was a social justice warrior, and my dad was a people protector,” she said.

From her dad, she learned resilience. From her mom, it was persistence–like taking 25 years to learn to use a sewing machine, she said with a laugh.

“I was totally okay with hand sewing until ribbon skirts came out,” she said, gesturing to her skirt. The skirt is made of bright ribbons, woven and stitched together, and carries deep cultural significance. “These are like the spirits of people, and we weave together. That’s community–when people weave together. It’s like braiding too, which we do with sweetgrass--one strand is real weak by itself, but when you braid it together it’s real strong.”

Persistence manifests in Nicky’s community work. She has never shied away from getting involved in institutional or government processes, and she wants to create a future where everyone is welcome at the table, instead of having to bust doors down to get there.

Prairie Island Indian Community is adjacent to the City of Red Wing, and for decades the relationship between the two entities has been strained. Nicky is Dakota, a 7th-generation descendant of Chief Wabasha II. Her great-great grandmother had to hide in the Lake Pepin area before the family could come home to Prairie Island. The memory of being forced away from their homeland remains, along with a pattern of racial discrimination and a deeply felt sense that Dakota people were unwelcome in Red Wing.

But some recent changes in the community have created openings and new pathways for connection. One important shift concerned He Mni Caŋ, pronounced Heh-Meh-NEE-Cha, or Barn Bluff, which is a sacred hill to Dakota people. Its name means Hill Water Wood in Dakota.

In 2016, Nicky’s uncle Arthur Owen led an effort to enforce the graffiti ban on He Mni Caŋ, advocating for its right to exist peacefully as a sacred place, as a relative that is more than human. City leaders created a plan to do so, and worked with the Tribe on a restoration project completed in 2021. The process sparked an important conversation about the spiritual significance of the bluff to the Dakota.

Another big step forward is called the Honoring Dakota Project. A partnership launched in fall 2022, this project brought a Dakota-themed mural to a prominent downtown location in Red Wing, and launched an ongoing series of community learning exchanges, cultural events, crafting circles, and more.

The message coming out of that project was “We see you, we honor you. It was a beautiful gesture,” Nicky said.

For Nicky, the Honoring Dakota Project functioned as a filtration system--a way to purify the long-lasting pollutants that are the legacy of colonialism. For many white people in Minnesota, there’s not a high level of awareness of the residential schools Native children were forced to attend, or the ways that Dakota people survived genocide and attempts to exterminate their culture over the past 200 years. Part of the difficulty now is people needing to admit what happened, and feel bad about it, and be able to move through that feeling into action.

The Honoring Dakota Project brought a new reciprocity to the relationship of the neighboring communities. “We for the first time have a place at the table, a safe space for Dakota people to talk about issues and share the beauty of our culture,” and do that in a way where the narrative belongs to the Dakota and isn’t appropriated, Nicky said.

That relationship-building work now brings Nicky to the Winona area. Nicky started getting connected in 2023 with Winona County Historical Society and Art of the Rural, which is based in Winona. In 2024, she will be one of several Spillway fellows, visiting culture bearers focused on building pathways for community change through art, stories, and more.

For Dakota people, there is a connection between He Mni Caŋ in Red Wing and Wapáha Ša Pahá, or Sugarloaf in Winona. They’re spoken of as twin sisters, or in some stories as husband and wife. The story is that there was fighting within the Dakota, so the Creator made it all dark and shook the earth three times, splitting the two hills from each other. The distance is a reminder of the pain and how we’re not supposed to fight with our relatives, Nicky said.

As the Honoring Dakota Project got underway, Nicky was visiting He Mni Caŋ. “I was on He Mni Caŋ, and she cried, she missed her sister.” The message was clear: as humans, we have to get along, and we have to clear the baggage that hasn’t been addressed. “Heal through this, and then bring it down the river to my sister.”

Prairie Island Indian Community once had relationships with Winona, but somewhere along the line, those relationships faltered, and folks from Prairie Island stopped coming to Winona.

Nicky said her work now is about building new relationships, and making Winona a safe place for all people of diverse backgrounds -- and for Prairie Island, a place where their kids can go to college and not be too far from home.

Right now, Nicky’s work in Winona is in a stage of deepening the conversation, of getting people excited about the opportunity instead of putting up barriers. What Nicky hopes to see is something tangible that Winona can give to Prairie Island, as a way to say We want and need you at the table.

To learn more about Nicky’s work and the Honoring Dakota Project, visit

Read Marcia’s poetry at

Learn more about Cloey’s photography at
Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.