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Kansas tribe buys land in ancestral reservation
Friday, February 20, 2004

A Kansas tribe is finally reclaiming land in Illinois that one of its chiefs used to call home.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation last week completed the purchase of a property in Shabbona, Illinois. Although only about one acre in size, chairman Zach Pahmahmie said it was an important move for the tribe.

"It is enormously heartening to take these first steps toward rebuilding our presence as neighbors in the Shabbona area," Pahmahmie said.

The land in Shabbona is part of a 1,280-acre reservation that was set aside for Chief Shab-eh-nay by the 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien. The Potawatomi, Chippewa and Ottawa tribes gave up millions of acres of what is now Illinois and Wisconsin in the treaty.

In subsequent treaties, the Potawatomis were eventually removed to Kansas and other states. But tribal leaders say their ancestors never ceded the reservation in Illinois. It was lost only because Chief Shab-eh-nay was driven off his home by settlers in the 1830s, they point out. When he returned two decades later, he found out that it had been sold by the federal government.

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

That view is backed up by a legal memorandum from the Department of Interior. In the final days of the Clinton administration in January 2001, then-solicitor John Leshy said the tribe has a "credible" claim to the reservation.

"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."

The letter didn't stop a top House Republican from signing onto a bill that would terminate the tribe's rights without compensation or consultation. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the measure would "settle" outstanding land claims in his state.

The bill never made it far in light of opposition from several tribes with ancestral ties to Illinois. Several Democrats and some Republicans on the House Resources Committee also opposed it.

Hastert responded to the Prairie Band's purchase of the Shabbona home last week by playing down the Leshy memo. "The Department of Interior has a thorough process in place to review such claims, and the tribe has yet to begin that process," he said.

Hastert also said the tribe has "a long way" to go if it wants a casino in his state. He said it would take several years for any land to be placed in trust status and for a gaming compact to be negotiated with the state.

According to a published report, the tribe is interested in a casino in the county where the Shab-eh-nay Reservation is located. Last month, The MidWeek News said the tribe sent the governor's office a proposal that includes a casino, hotel, resort, RV park, convenience store and other developments. The facility would be located on 128 acres of land in DeKalb County where the tribe has purchased options.

The tribe can't reclaim all of the reservation because 60 percent is now part of the Chief Shabbona Preserve, the Shabbona State Park and a county forest preserve. The rest is privately held and Mitchell previously testified that the tribe will purchase from willing sellers.

Illinois wasn't just home to the Prairie Band ancestors. The Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, the Miami Nation of Oklahoma and the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma all have ties there. The Ottawa Tribe believes it has a claim to the Shab-e-nay Reservation.

Excepts of Leshy 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:
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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