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Federal legislation would provide settlement claim for Tribe’s reservation land in Illinois

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation originally occupied territory in southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. Now, the Band hopes to reclaim land reserved for them in the 1800s. 

Currently there’s no recognized Native reservations in Illinois. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Advocates say a reservation established in the early 1800s was never dissolved. 

Now, federal legislation (S. 3242) introduced November 18, 2021, in the U.S. Senate would reaffirm the reservation and the Tribal sovereignty status of  a Tribe displaced more than 150 years ago. 

“It's been a long time coming.”

Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick is the chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation currently based in what is now Kansas.

“I think in the past 20 years when my mother was chairperson, she was the one that really started pushing this,” Rupnick said. “We went through different, different paths, different ways to go about it. But I think that now today, we're kind of on a good path. We got both Republican and Democrat support on that, so I'm hoping that we'll get this passed and get this settled.”

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation signed the Treaty of Prairie Du Chien (doo SHEEN) in 1829, which reserved land in northwest Illinois for Chief Shab-eh-nay (SHAB-nay) and the band. 

Indian removal policies in the 1830s forced many Indigenous people from their traditional territory. And several Tribes in the area relinquished millions of acres more with the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 -- but the treaty never affected the Shab-eh-nay land.

In 1849, the U.S. General Land Office illegally sold Tribal land and passed the title to non-Natives. 

The federal Non-intercourse Act says that only Congress has the power to dissolve or extinguish Indian land title. But Congress never did in this case. 

“Because Congress never extinguished that title, either by treaty, the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, nor have they done since then, then technically that is still recognized federal Indian country.” 

In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision -- McGirt v. Oklahoma -- to reaffirm the Tribal sovereignty and reservation of the Muscogee Nation -- which includes more than 3 million acres in Oklahoma -- and much of Tulsa. 

That Supreme Court decision gives Rupnick hope.

“We need you to recognize that this is still Indian country, that this is still Indian reservation,” Rupnick said. “That's kind of been our push there to make sure that they recognize the land that we have and that that land that surrounded it in that in that original two sections be recognized as Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation.”

The Prairie Band recently reacquired three tracts of about 130 acres of the Shah-eh-nay (SHAB-nay) Band Reservation. Rupnick says the surrounding community has largely been supportive of the Tribe’s effort. 

“We've spent a lot of time building that trust in those relationships up there to get that support that we need on the local level to come back into that in to the state.” 

The Potawatomi Nation released a briefing document on the discussions between the Tribe and members of Congress in regards to the federal legislation. 

According to that document, 

  • The Tribe seeks recognition of its ownership and jurisdiction of the land it has reacquired within the reservation;
  • The Tribe also seeks $10 million in compensation for the government taking 1,151 acres within the original reservation -- as well as compensating for the lost rents and damages associated with the land's dispossession; and
  • The Tribe wants to use settlement act money to buy 1,151 acres of additional land on or near the reservation in Dekalb County.

Rupnick says that railroad tracks now run through the reservation land, and a man-made lake was also created in the area. 
“There are things in there that we'll probably never recover or never get back. It's a state park now, so a lot of the land that was part of the original reservation we’ll never be able to reclaim,” Rupnick said. 

The bill also would extinguish the Indian title to the previous reservation land. The U.S. Senate bill has been referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

“We're hoping that that will get passed and that we'll get pushed through to clear the title to reclaim some additional land so that we can pursue other economic activities in the state of Illinois,” Rupnick said. “And hopefully someday it'll make it right.”

The Illinois General Assembly submitted a similar measure in October.  

Originally from the Midwest, Tripp Crouse (Ojibwe, a descendent of Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, pronouns: they/them) has 15-plus years in print, web and radio journalism. Tripp first moved to Alaska in 2016 to work with KTOO Public Media in Juneau. And later moved to Anchorage in 2018 to work with KNBA and Koahnic Broadcast Corporation. Tripp currently works for Spruce Root in Juneau, Alaska. Tripp also served as chair of the Station Advisory Committee for Native Public Media.