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Amelia Schafer
Special to ICT

SHABBONA, Illinois — More than 150 years after being forced from their homelands in what is now north-central Illinois, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation has reason to celebrate.

A bill filed in the U.S. Congress last month would allow the tribe to acquire more than 1,100 acres of land near Shabbona State Park, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, that was illegally auctioned off by the U.S. government in 1849.

“Today is a historic day – it marks the most progress we’ve had in our century-and-a-half pursuit to reclaim our land,” Potawatomi Chairman Joseph Rupnick said at a press conference Thursday, Aug. 11, to discuss the legislation.

“We’re finally getting the recognition we deserve and spreading awareness to folks to understand the actual injustice that we’ve suffered for the past 200 years,” said Rupnick, a direct descendant of Chief Shab-eh-nay, whose lands were seized by the government.

U.S. Reps. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia and Lauren Underwood, both Democrats from Illinois, introduced House Bill 8308, The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Shab-eh-nay Band Reservation Settlement Act of 2022, last month to allow the tribe to acquire the land in southern DeKalb County.

The bill also would provide an initial compensation of $10 million to the tribe as repayment for the illegal sale.

A color guard from the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation appears at a press conference on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Shabbona, Illinois, where tribal Chairman Joseph Rupnick discusses a bill in Congress that would help the tribe reacquire more than 1,100 acres of land illegally auction off by the U.S. government in 1849. Rupnick is a direct descendant of Chief Shab-eh-nay whose lands were seized. The bill was filed by U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, D-Illinois. (Photo by Amelia Schafer for ICT)

Garcia and Underwood joined with the tribal chairman and Illinois state Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas and state Rep. Tom Demmer to discuss the proposal.

“This bill will finally enable tribes to reclaim a portion of stolen land and be rightfully compensated,” García said during the press conference.

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A clause on deeds now registered within the state of Illinois note that the property is subject to “all rights, claims or title to the descendants of a Potawatomi Indian Chieftan named Shabbona and his band.”

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The bill filed in Congress would affirm ownership by the Prairie Band Potawatomi to 130 acres of land within the original reservation that the tribe has already reacquired, and would provide clear title to several non-Natives who own residential homes on other parcels. It would also provide clear title to governments that own some land within the original reservation.

The tribe would then be able to use settlement funds to acquire the remaining 1,151 acres on or near the reservation.

The Potawatomi people were forced from their traditional homelands in Illinois in the early 1830s under the federal Indian removal policy.

Under the Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1829, the tribe ceded five million acres of land to the federal government but received two parcels, about 1,280 acres, for Chief Shab-eh-nay and his band. The band’s claim to the lands was affirmed under the 1833 Treaty of Chicago.

In 1849, however, while Chief Shab-eh-nay was visiting family in Kansas, the U.S. government illegally auctioned off the land to settlers. He returned home that year to find his home had been torn down and that settlers were occupying the lands.

Chief Shab-eh-nay fought to regain the lands before he died in 1859. Generations of his descendants then continued the fight without success.

Finally, in 2001, the U.S. Department of the Interior ruled that Chief Shab-eh-nay’s tribe, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, had a legitimate claim to the land.

Local opponents challenged the efforts, however, and in February 2022, the DeKalb County Board voted 12-10 not to back the Prairie Band in its efforts. Several board members attended the press conference on Aug. 11, however, to voice their support.

Now, the Prairie Band eagerly waits to see if Congress will take final action.

“It’s up to Congress to correct this,” Rupnick said.

Timeline
*1829 - Treaty of Prairie du Chien – Article III reserves 1,280 acres of land for Chief Shab-eh-nay and his band.+
*1833 - Treaty of Chicago - does not cede the Shab-eh-nay reservation lands, reaffirms decision.
*1849 - While Shab-eh-nay is visiting family in Kansas, the U.S. government illegally auctions off the land to settlers; the chief returns to Illinois to find that his home has been torn down and settlers have occupied his reservation
*2001 - The solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a Solicitor’s Opinion concluding that: the Shab-eh-nay Reservation still exists; the nation is the legal successor-in-interest to the Shab-eh-nay Band; and the United States continues to bear a trust responsibility to the nation for the lands.+
*2006 - The solicitor’s decision is confirmed by the Interior Department.+
*2015 - The Prairie Band approaches DeKalb County board for permission to establish a Class 2 casino. The plan is later stalled.
*2021 - The Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation Shab-eh-nay Reservation Settlement Act is introduced by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas.
*February 2022 - The DeKalb County board votes 12-10 not to back the Prairie Band’s efforts.
*July 14, 2022 - H.R. 8340 is introduced by Reps. Jesus Garcia and Lauren Underwood. 

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