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

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

FILE - Illinois State Rep. Will Guzzardi, Dist.  Chicago, speaks to a reporter on the floor of the Illinois House in Springfield, Illinois, May 11, 2023. The Illinois General Assembly is poised to right a 175-year-old wrong by returning land in northern Illinois guaranteed to a Potawatomi chief in 1829. (AP Photo/John O'Connor, file)

FILE – Illinois State Rep. Will Guzzardi, Dist. Chicago, speaks to a reporter on the floor of the Illinois House in Springfield, Illinois, May 11, 2023. The Illinois General Assembly is poised to right a 175-year-old wrong by returning land in northern Illinois guaranteed to a Potawatomi chief in 1829. (AP Photo/John O’Connor, file)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Some 175 years after the U.S. government stole land from the chief of the Potawatomi Prairie Band 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 a reservation in northern Illinois: neither subsequent treaties nor the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced all natives to move west of the Mississippi.


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

To right the wrongs, Illinois would transfer a 1,500-acre (607-hectare) state park west of Chicago that was named after Shab-eh-nay, of the Potawatomi Prairie Band Nation. The state will continue to provide maintenance while the tribe says it wants to keep the park as 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 in the park and take advantage of all that land there,” said Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick, president of the park. Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation based in Mayetta, Kansas.

It is not entirely the same land that the US took from Chief Shab-eh-nay. The boundaries of its original 1,280-acre (518-hectare) preserve now encompass hundreds of acres of private land, a golf course, and the county forest preserve. Legislation awaiting approval by the Illinois House would transfer Shabbona Lake State Recreation Area.

No one disputes that Shab-eh-nay’s reservation was illegally sold and still belongs to the Potawatomi. A carefully researched July 2000 Interior Department memo found the claim to be valid and dismissed Illinois officials’ denials at the time, positing: “Illinois officials appear to be struggling with the concept of having a reservation Indian in the state”.

But nothing has changed a quarter of a century later.

Democratic state Rep. Will Guzzardi, who sponsored the state park transfer legislation, said it was a significant concession from the Potawatomi. With various private and public concerns now owning more than half of the original reservation’s land, claiming it for the Potawatomi would create a serpentine legal dispute.

“Instead, the tribe offered a compromise, which was, ‘We’ll take the entire park and give up our claim on the private lands and the county and the rest of that land,’” Guzzardi said. “This is a better deal for all parties involved.”

The proposed transfer of the park, which is 109 kilometers west of Chicago, won Senate approval in the final days of the spring legislative session. But a problem in the house prevented its passage. Supporters will seek approval of the measure when the Legislature returns in November for the fall session.

The second treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1829 guaranteed the original land to Chief Shab-eh-ney. The tribe signed 20 more treaties over the next 38 years, according to Rupnick.

“However, Congress reserved those two pieces of land for Chief Shab-eh-nay and his descendants forever,” said Rupnick, Shab-eh-nay’s fourth great-grandson. “At any of those times, 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 near the park oppose the plan, fearing that building a casino or even a hotel would attract more tourists and lead to a larger, more crowded community.

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

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

In 2006, the tribe purchased 128 acres (52 hectares) on a corner of the original reservation and leases the land for agriculture. In April, the US government certified it as the first reservation in Illinois.

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

“Keep this beautiful public good available to everyone,” Guzzardi said. “It resolves the disputed title for landowners in the area, and most importantly, it fixes a promise we broke.”