Illinois may soon return land the US stole from a Prairie Band Potawatomi chief 175 years ago

Illinois is poised to right a 175-year-old wrong by returning land in northern Illinois guaranteed to a Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation chief in 1829

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Some 175 years after the U.S. government stole land from the chief of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation while he was away visiting relatives, Illinois may soon return it to the tribe.

Nothing ever changed the 1829 treaty that Chief Shab-eh-nay signed with the U.S. government to preserve for him a reservation in northern Illinois: not subsequent accords nor the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which forced all indigenous people to move west of the Mississippi.

But around 1848, the U.S. sold the land to white settlers while Shab-eh-nay and other members of his tribe were visiting family in Kansas.

To right the wrong, Illinois would transfer a 1,500-acre (607-hectare) state park west of Chicago, which was named after Shab-eh-nay, to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. The state would continue providing maintenance while the tribe says it wants to keep the park as it is.

“The average citizen shouldn’t know that title has been transferred to the nation so they can still enjoy everything that’s going on within the park and take advantage of all of that area out there,” said Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation based in Mayetta, Kansas.

It's not entirely the same soil that the U.S. took from Chief Shab-eh-nay. The boundaries of his original 1,280-acre (518-hectare) reservation now encompass hundreds of acres of privately owned land, a golf course and county forest preserve. The legislation awaiting Illinois House approval would transfer the Shabbona Lake State Recreation Area.

No one disputes Shab-eh-nay's reservation was illegally sold and still belongs to the Potawatomi. An exactingly researched July 2000 memo from the Interior Department found the claim valid and shot down rebuttals from Illinois officials at the time, positing, “It appears that Illinois officials are struggling with the concept of having an Indian reservation in the state.”

But nothing has changed a quarter-century later.

Democratic state Rep. Will Guzzardi, who sponsored the legislation to transfer the state park, said it is a significant concession on the part of the Potawatomi. With various private and public concerns now owning more than half of the original reservation land, reclaiming it for the Potawatomi would set up a serpentine legal wrangle.

“Instead, the tribe has offered a compromise, which is to say, ‘We’ll take the entirety of the park and give up our claim to the private land and the county land and the rest of that land,’” Guzzardi said. “That’s a better deal for all parties involved.”

The proposed transfer of the park, which is 68 miles (109 kilometers) west of Chicago, won Senate approval in the final days of the spring legislative session. But a snag in the House prevented its passage. Proponents will seek endorsement of the meaure when the Legislature returns in November for its fall meeting.

The Second Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1829 guaranteed the original land to Chief Shab-eh-ney. The tribe signed 20 other treaties during the next 38 years, according to Rupnick.

“Yet Congress still kept those two sections of land for Chief Shab-eh-nay and his descendants forever,” said Rupnick, a fourth great-grandson of Shab-eh-nay. “At any one of those times the Congress could have removed the status of that land. They never did.”

Key to the proposal is a management agreement between the tribe and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Rupnick said the tribe needs the state's help to maintain the park.

Many residents who live next to the park oppose the plan, fearing construction of a casino or even a hotel would draw more tourists and lead to a larger, more congested community.

“Myself and my family have put a lot of money and given up a lot to be where we are in a small community and enjoy the park the way that it is,” resident Becky Oest told a House committee in May, asking that the proposal be amended to prohibit construction that would “affect our community. It’s a small town. We don’t want it to grow bigger.”

Rupnick said a casino doesn't make sense because state-sanctioned gambling boats already dot the state. He did not rule out a hotel, noting the park draws 500,000 visitors a year and the closest lodging is in DeKalb, 18 miles (29 kilometers) northeast of Shabbona. The park has 150 campsites.

In 2006, the tribe purchased 128 acres (52 hectares) in a corner of the original reservation and leases the land for farming. The U.S. government in April certified that as the first reservation in Illinois.

Guzzardi hopes the Potawatomi don't have to wait much longer to see that grow exponentially with the park transfer.

“It keeps this beautiful public asset available to everyone,” Guzzardi said. “It resolves disputed title for landholders in the area and most importantly, it fixes a promise that we broke."

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Credit: AP