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Kansas tribe buys ancestral land in Illinois
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas announced the second purchase of ancestral land on Tuesday, more than 150 years after being forced to leave Illinois.

The tribe's first buy was small: a family home in Shabbona, the community named for Chief Shab-eh-nay, the Potawatomi leader who signed an 1829 treaty that set aside a 1,280-acre reservation for his people.

The second purchase is much bigger: a 128-acre farm. With the help of gaming revenues from a casino in Kansas, the tribe bought the land for nearly $9 million, much higher than the going rate.

"Today is one of great joy and celebration for our Tribe; and we are here to celebrate and share with you the re-acquisition of a piece of our ancestral homelands," chairwoman Tracy Stanhoff said. "If you are Native peoples, then you can imagine what we are feeling today as we stand, sing and pray upon this beautiful land - land that our ancestors lived on and land that we were forced to leave in the mid-19th century."

The announcement set off a flurry of speculation in the media about the plans for the site. Is a casino in the works? Or something else?

Stanhoff says there are no plans for now. The tribe, however, is investigating potential development in Shabbona, located about 70 miles west of Chicago.

The tribe has actively maintained that the reserve set aside for Chief Shab-eh-nay still exists despite removal to Kansas. Tribal leaders their ancestor was forced from his home by non-Indian settlers in the 1830s. The federal government eventually sold the land in 1849.

"He didn't abandon the land," Gary Mitchell, the tribe's former vice chairman, said at a Congressional hearing in May 2002.

The Clinton administration shared a similar view. In January 2001, then-solicitor John Leshy sent a letter to members of Congress stating that the tribe has a "credible" claim to the land.

"Our research has not revealed any subsequent treaty or act of Congress which authorized the conveyance of these lands," Leshy wrote. "As a result, we believe the U.S. continues to bear a trust responsibility to the Prairie Band for these lands."

Not everyone thinks the tribe can reclaim Chief Shab-eh-nay's home. Just three months after Leshy's letter, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), whose district includes Shabbona, and three colleagues introduced a bill that would extinguish all treaty rights in the state of Illinois.

The proposal would have affected the Prairie Band as well as the Miami Nation and the Ottawa Tribe, whose ancestors also lived in Illinois before being removed to Oklahoma.

But rather than file a costly and cumbersome land claim, the Prairie Band is taking a different approach by buying land on the open market. "We do not want to displace anyone the way we were displaced," said current vice chairman Rey Kitchkemme at a press conference yesterday, The Chicago Tribune reported.

Although the 128-acre farm is located within an historic reservation, the tribe's land buy could pose some legal difficulties. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case involving the Oneida Nation of New York, said the tribe couldn't reassert sovereignty over ancestral lands without going through the land-into-trust process.

The Oneida Nation purchased more than 17,000 acres within its historic reservation. But the Supreme Court ruling prompted the tribe to seek trust land status for all of its properties. A decision before the Bureau of Indian Affairs is pending and could be years away.

Should the Prairie Band seek trust status, the tribe faces additional scrutiny. Since the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, the BIA has approved just one out-of-state land acquisition -- a parcel in downtown Kansas City for the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma. The land is the subject of legal battles with the state over gaming.

In another case, the Interior Department said the Miami Nation of Oklahoma lost its claim to a reservation in Kansas. The case is now in court.

For now, the Prairie Band is content with celebrating its return home. "After more than 150 years we have a piece of our original homelands back," Stanhoff said yesterday.

Excepts of Interior Department Letter:
Leshy to Hastert (January 18, 2001)

Treaty Termination Bill:
To provide for the equitable settlement of certain Indian land disputes regarding land in Illinois (H.R.791)

Related Documents:
Congressional Hearing Testimony | 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien | Background on 1829 Treaty

Relevant Links:
Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation -

Related Stories:
Prairie Band Potawatomi land buy stirs interest (5/9)
Kansas tribe drops option on out-of-state land (06/03)
Tribes take chances with far-away land acquisitions (04/01)
House leader says tribe doesn't have land claim in Ill. (03/22)
Kansas tribe buys land in ancestral reservation (02/20)
Clinton memo cited 'credible' land claim (05/13)
'An affront to tribal sovereignty' (5/9)
Tribal bill enjoys top GOP support (5/7)

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