A longstanding dispute over land in rural Illinois between Native Americans and locals is finally coming to a head.
The Chief’s tribe, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, has been battling to get the land back since the auction took place 173 years ago.
Prairie Band chairperson Joseph ‘Zeke’ Rupnick said the proposed federal bill will correct a historic wrong. Rupnick, who is a descendant of the Chief, said the tribe hasn’t yet decided what the Potawatomi would do with the land if the bill passes.
The tribe has previously had ideas of opening casinos, electric bingo halls, and hotels. But Rupnick thinks gaming in the Land of Lincoln has become overexposed because it’s easy to access casinos, Illinois sportsbooks, and bars with slot machines across the state.
Even though this statement holds true as Illinois casinos abound and more are on the way, a casino could be a profitable revenue source for the Tribe.
What happened to the land in the first place?
The village of Shabbona, a town just south of DeKalb, is named after Potawatomi Chief Shab-eh-nay. The Chief once took a Paul Revere-esque horse ride to make settlers aware of approaching attackers.
In 1829, the United States government rewarded the Chief for his heroism along with other work he’d done in the area. They gave him 1,280 acres of the same land where Shabbona now sits.
Four years later, the 1833 Treaty of Chicago was enacted so Native American tribes could grant the government five million acres west of Lake Michigan. This included the Chief’s land in what we now know as Shabbona.
However, a federal bill is now under consideration that states the Senate never ratified that portion of the treaty.
The Treaty of Chicago also forced Potawatomi Nation members to move to Kansas, including the Chief. In 1849, the Chief’s land was sold at auction while he was still in Kansas. And he didn’t grant permission for it to be sold.
Federal bill getting pushback from Shabbona locals
Locals aren’t happy with the idea of the land they own possibly being at risk based on the ruling of the bill. Shabbona citizens and other area residents believe the land wasn’t a reservation.
Rather, they say it was privately owned land by the Chief that he attempted to sell or abandon while in Kansas. The most notable person against the bill is former Illinois House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
But the federal bill doesn’t aim to take the land away from locals. Rather, its goal is to compensate the Prairie Band for the losses they incurred, and give Shabbona landowners clear ownership of their land.
Some deeds in the village even state ‘all rights, claims, or title to the descendants of a Potawatomi Chieftain named Shabbona and his Band.’ This language would be eliminated from the deed if the federal bill passes through.
In terms of compensation, the Potawatomi would receive $10 million over the following nine years. With that, they can begin purchasing 1,151 acres of land in the Shabbona area.
Former US Rep. Deb Haaland, who is the first Native American US Secretary of Interior, would be responsible for determining the payment amounts through the nine years.
One proposal was based around a Native American heritage museum that would house Potawatomi artifacts. There would also be a lodge for the roughly 500,000 visitors to the local state park.
Shabbona Village Board and Potawatomi Tribe have a good relationship
Despite the pushback from Shabbona residents, the village board has been supportive of the tribe’s plans. Shabbona trustee Marc Cinnamon had this to say:
“We have people in the village say, ‘Why are you even talking to them?’ We want to be involved if they gain sovereignty (over the nearby land).”
The DeKalb County Board doesn’t share similar feelings. The board recently voted 12-10 against the federal proposal and this is what chairman John Freiders said about the vote:
“We have concerns about everything. If we don’t have the details, we can’t make decisions on it.”
Federal bill is part of a larger movement across the country
Similar situations have been happening more and more recently as part of the Land Back movement. This pushes for decision-making regarding land given back to Indigenous communities who once owned them. Many federal judges have ruled in favor of the tribes.
Doug Kiel, an Oneida Nation citizen and professor at Northwestern, said this about Native Americans fighting back to be compensated for land that was taken from them:
“This is increasingly going to be the way of the future. What might seem like obscure history is not. It has a lot of stakes for the present.”
A big concern about the movement lies with local governments who worry about where property tax money will go. Because Indian reservations are exempt from taxes.
But Kiel said compensation can be negotiated. This is similar to how the Potawatomi granted land back to the US many years ago.