Editorial: A historic wrong finally righted for the Prairie Band Potawatomi

We note with pleasure that Illinois finally now has the first federally recognized tribal land in the Prairie State.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced Friday that portions of Shab-eh-nay Reservation land, located in DeKalb County, are being placed into trust for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, thus giving the tribal nation sovereignty over that acreage adjacent to Shabbona Lake State Park.

The decision redresses a clear wrong, dating back more than 175 years.

Simply put, in 1833, the Potawatomi were pressured into signing the Treaty of Chicago in which they gave up nearly all their land along the western shore of Lake Michigan — all except the roughly 2 square miles of Illinois land reserved for them by the Treaty of Prairie du Chien. Most of the Prairie Band Potawatomi moved to the Kansas territory, where they used the money they’d been given to buy a small reservation near Topeka. But Chief Shab-eh-nay (“Built like a bear”) stayed put, as did a couple of a dozen other members of his family, living until 1845 in DeKalb County.

Alas for all of them, Shab-eh-nay made a trip west of the Mississippi to visit relatives (not a quick jaunt in those days) and when he came back he discovered the U.S. had declared the land “forfeited” and had sold off its 128 acres to settlers. Those who have lost property in tax sales may sympathize, but Shab-eh-nay owed no money. He’d simply gone off on a trip. Some settlers eventually gave Shab-eh-nay and his family land upon which to live near Morris, but the injustice remained, as did Shab-eh-nay’s understandable anger at the government-sanctioned theft.

In July, we published an Opinion piece by Joseph Zeke Rupnick, the great-grandson of Chief Shab-eh-nay, arguing for the return of this land. “Despite our land being illegally taken from us, we’re still here, living and contributing to life in Illinois, while practicing our traditions and serving our country,” he wrote on these pages. “Our reservation land may not yet be back in the hands of our tribe, but we have the truth and increasing acknowledgment that our cause is just.”

Indeed. The basic history of ownership (and theft) is not, as far as we know, under any serious dispute.

On Friday, a wrong was mostly righted when an enlightened compromise was achieved. The tribe now gets to govern 130 new (or not so new) acres, located adjacent to Shabbona Lake State Park, with associated federal benefits and protections. The state may well add to the total in the future if a deal can be reached on how that land is used.

Casino watchers already have been wondering if this could be the site of yet another future Illinois casino, given that the Potawatomi already run successful gambling operations in Milwaukee and Kansas. If they so chose, the tribe could operate so-called “Class II gaming” (bingo and “nonbanked card games”) under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act without the state’s permission. But anything like the Four Winds Casino in Michigan would require some negotiation.

That’s a matter for another day. The Potawatomi, the proper owners of this land, rightfully will make the call.

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