Prairie Band Potawatomi becomes 1st federally recognized tribe in Illinois

Prairie Band Potawatomi becomes 1st federally recognized tribe in Illinois

By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
hmeisel@capitolnewsillinois.com

Nearly 200 years after Native Americans were forced out of Illinois, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation has become the first federally recognized tribal nation in the state after a decision from the U.S. Department of the Interior last week.

The move represents the first victory in the tribe’s larger effort to regain the approximately 1,280 acres of its ancestral land in Illinois via legislation in both the General Assembly and Congress. 

But the tribe first had to spend $10 million over the last 20 years to repurchase the first 130 acres of the Shab-eh-nay Reservation, located in what is now DeKalb County, that the federal government illegally sold out from under Chief Shab-eh-nay around 1850. 

Nearly two centuries later, Prairie Band Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick – a fourth-great grandson of Chief Shab-eh-nay – signed paperwork on Friday that allows the Department of the Interior to place those 130 acres into a trust, which gives the tribe sovereignty over the land.

Rupnick said he’d heard the story of his ancestral land in Illinois “ever since I was a child” from his grandparents, and said his mother started the push to reclaim the Prairie Band’s land three decades ago when she was the tribe’s chairperson.

Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick (left) signs over the title to 130 acres of land the tribe had repurchased from its original reservation in DeKalb County to the federal government, making it the first federally recognized tribe in Illinois. (photo provided)

“For me to actually get it accomplished and signed, honestly, words couldn’t describe the feeling that I had that, you know, when I actually completed that task,” he told Capitol News Illinois on Monday, adding that the credit should be shared with his entire counsel and tribal membership more broadly. “And now the real work begins.”

Read more: Native tribe seeks return of ancestral land in Dekalb County

Prairie Band leaders initiated the process with the federal government 30 years ago, Rupnick said, even before the tribe made the three purchases of private land that make up the 130 acres signed over on Friday. In 2004, the tribe purchased a house located on the historic reservation, then in 2006 it bought a 128-acre farm. More than 13 years passed until the tribe could buy another house in the area.

After a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found Native American tribes still have a claim to their reservations unless Congress took specific actions to disestablish a reservation, the Prairie Band re-filed its land trust application with the Department of the Interior last year.

A bill pending in the Illinois House would also give the Prairie Band tribe the title to the approximately 1,500 acres that make up Shabbona Lake State Park, located a little less than 20 miles southwest of DeKalb. Shabbona Lake State Park is named for Chief Shab-eh-nay and covers much of the Prairie Band’s original reservation.

A map of the 130 acres of land the Prairie Band purchased in DeKalb County that now makes up the tribe’s federally recognized reservation. (image provided)

But other parts of the Prairie Band’s ancestral lands are now occupied by private homes, the titles to which are “clouded” due to old treaty disputes, Rupnick said.

“Right now, if you did a title search, and you had a house that was within the boundaries of that reservation, that title search would come back and say that sale is subject to the concurrence of Shab-eh-nay and/or his descendants,” Rupnick told Capitol News Illinois earlier this year. 

To clear up those claims, the Prairie Band tribe has proposed federal legislation that would allow the current occupants of those homes to keep those properties, and even to pass them on to their descendants. But if those homeowners ever choose to sell, the federal legislation would give the tribe a right of first refusal to purchase.

In a podcast interview with Capitol News Illinois released in March, Rupnick told the story of how the Prairie Band lost its land over time – and how the federal government betrayed Chief Shab-eh-nay in a land grab.

Capitol Cast: Prairie Band Potawatomi seek to reclaim land

In 1833, the Potawatomi signed the Treaty of Chicago, ceding nearly all its Illinois land along the western shore of Lake Michigan except the two square miles in DeKalb County preserved for the tribe in an earlier treaty.

Though the Potawatomi had bought a 30-by-30-mile reservation in what’s now Kansas with money they received for ceding their Illinois land, Chief Shab-eh-nay and about 20 to 30 other members of his extended family stayed behind in Illinois.

Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick poses with members of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. (photo provided)

But when the chief took a trip to the Prairie Band’s new home in Kansas to see how the tribe was settling in, the General Land Office of the U.S. government pounced.

“Once he got back here (to Illinois), that’s when he discovered that people were living in his house,” Rupnick said. “They actually picked up his house and moved it to another location, and people were living in it.”

Rupnick said Chief Shab-eh-nay tried to fight the land grab in the court systems, but the courts ruled he had abandoned his land, giving the General Land Office authority to sell it. 

“And they allowed the settlers and whoever else to live there,” Rupnick said.

Rupnick told Capitol News Illinois on Monday that the Prairie Band would pursue agreements with existing fire protection districts and police departments to continue delivering services to the 130 acres that are now controlled by the Prairie Band. 

If the land transfer of Shabbona Lake State Park is approved by the General Assembly, Rupnick said the general public wouldn’t notice much difference, as the tribe would pursue agreements with the state’s Department of Natural Resources for management responsibilities of the park.

But the Prairie Band would have to file another application with the Department of the Interior to get any additional acreage added to the land trust so the tribe would have sovereignty over it.

“Kind of ironic, isn’t it?” Rupnick said. “The land that was carved out by treaty, that was owned by the federal government for Shab-eh-nay and his descendants, was sold by the federal government, then the nation had to go back, repurchase that land and now we signed over title to the federal government again.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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