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Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation will work with consulting firm to determine future of northern Illinois land

At a land title office in Sycamore, IL, Prairie Band Potawatomi Chairman Joseph Rupnick signs document transferring 130 acres of tribal-owned land in DeKalb County to the federal government, for use as reservation land.

For the first time since the 19th century, a Native American tribe has sovereign authority over land in the state of Illinois. Now, the tribal government has to figure out what to do with it.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi, based near Mayetta, Kansas, signed an agreement last week putting 130 acres of farmland in DeKalb County, Illinois into a federal trust. Joseph Rupnick is the tribal chairperson.

“Right now, we’ve hired a firm,” Rupnick said. “We’re just in the very beginning stages of that—where that firm is going to analyze the best use of that land, and what we can possibly do to benefit both the nation and the surrounding community.”

Rupnick said there are no plans “at this time” to open a casino on the DeKalb County site. He said while it’s something they considered in the 1990s, it’s not the right location or the right time.

“We’re pretty isolated and surrounded by casinos all over the place,” said Rupnick. “And we don’t really have an ease of access from any major roadways or anything like that. I think we need to look at what best suits us from where we’re at today.”

The site in northern Illinois was once part of the much larger Shab-eh-nay (also spelled Shabbona) Reservation, named for 19th century Potawatomi Chief Shab-eh-nay, a direct ancestor of Rupnick.

Rupnick said the land was sold illegally in 1850, while the chief was away visiting other tribal territories in Kansas.

According to Rupnick, the tribal government bought the land about 15 years ago but did not gain sovereign authority over it until last week.

“I think Prairie Band is the first tribal nation that was able to reclaim land that they were removed from during the Indian Removal period, three states away from their home base.”

Rupnick said a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, McGirt v. Oklahoma, gave them the authority to put the land in a federal trust and reclaim it as sovereign territory.

The 130-care site is located next to a larger piece of land that the Prairie Band Potawatomi would like to acquire: Shabbona Lake State Park. A bill before the Illinois House (HB4718) would transfer the roughly 1,500 acre park to the Prairie Band, which Rupnick says would continue to be a public park under their management. Only part of the park is in the footprint of the old Shab-eh-nay Reservation, but Rupnick says all of it would be eligible for sovereign land status. 

Picture of Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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