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Last week, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation began efforts to reestablish the only federal Indian reservation in Illinois, formally confirming the tribe’s governance over its land. The move could have wide-ranging impacts on matters ranging from criminal justice to climate and environmental jurisdiction.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi have spent years purchasing land in northern Illinois where the Shab-eh-nay Reservation once existed, and last week, the nation turned 130 acres of those lands over to the Department of Interior, or DOI, to hold in trust — a bureaucratic process that legally establishes tribal governance and opens tribes up to a range of benefits including tax credits, federal contract preferences, and land use exemptions.

“Now those lands are subject to our laws, our jurisdiction, and the nation determines what — if any — actions will happen on those lands,” said Joseph Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and fourth-generation great-grandson of Chief Shab-eh-nay, the original reservation’s namesake. 

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In the early 18th century, as the United States expanded westward, the federal government took massive swaths of land from Indigenous nations throughout the Midwest, including from the Prairie Band Potawatomi, via armed conflicts and nearly a dozen skewed treaties

The 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien with the nation reserved land in present-day northern Illinois for Chief Shab-eh-nay and the Prairie Band, where they remained for another two decades. However, in 1849, Shab-eh-nay left the reservation to visit Kansas and on his return found that the state had taken his land and home and illegally auctioned it. “The state of Illinois said he abandoned his land and sold it,” said Rupnick.

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Tribes relinquished millions of acres in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to the federal government by the mid 1800s, and nations in the region were eventually removed from the state to lands west of the Mississippi River. The Prairie Band has spent nearly a century working to reclaim those lands, paying to buy land back acre-by-acre. “Congress never took any action to disestablish that reservation,” said Rupnick. “So in our minds, it still exists.”

Last year, federal legislation was introduced to redress that seizure of Potawatomi land, and companion bills promised cash settlements to the band to reacquire additional lands in and around the original reservation’s boundaries. The proposed bill would also waive the band’s historical claims to the vast majority of its former territory.

“The decision to put portions of the Shab-eh-nay Reservation into trust is an important step to returning the land that is rightfully theirs,” said U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood, a co-sponsor of the bill. “I am so honored to represent the first federally recognized reservation in Illinois.”

Efforts to make the band whole have also been ongoing at the state level, too. 

“It’s well overdue,” said Illinois State Representative Mark Walker, the sponsor of a bill lawmakers are currently considering that would turn over Shabbona Lake State Park, just over 1,500 acres inside the historic footprint of the reservation, to the Prairie Band Potawatomi nation.

That means it’s now up to the tribe to take over jurisdiction of the land, everything from law enforcement to natural resource management. 

“At this time, we have various options for utilizing the trust lands, and no immediate changes have been decided upon,” according to a spokesperson for the tribe. 

In an email statement from DOI, a spokesman confirmed the transfer and continued, “It is the department’s policy to acquire land in trust for tribes to strengthen self-determination and sovereignty, and to ensure that every tribe has protected homelands where its citizens can maintain their tribal existence and way of life.”

“I have pictures of my great-grandmother and my grandmother coming up here in the ’60s trying to fight for this land,” Rupnick said. He wasn’t sure he’d live to see this day. “To have it actually happen today is amazing.”