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Potawatomi hope to finalize land transfer when Illinois lawmakers return in the fall

Prairie Band Chairman Joseph Rupnick, center, stands with other members of Prairie Band after he signed over the title to 130 acres of land to the federal government on Friday, making Prairie Band the first federally recognized tribal nation in Illinois.
Prairie Band Chairman Joseph Rupnick, center, stands with other members of Prairie Band after he signed over the title to 130 acres of land to the federal government on Friday, making Prairie Band the first federally recognized tribal nation in Illinois.

The leader of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation says he believes Illinois lawmakers will eventually pass a bill granting the tribe title to a 1,500-acre park in DeKalb County, but it may take a few more months.

Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick said in a statement this week that a bill granting the tribe ownership of Shabbona Lake and State Park outside of Aurora had bipartisan support in both chambers, but lawmakers simply ran out of time before giving it final passage.

“Although we ran out of time, we’re seeing Illinois position itself on the right side of history in a milestone that would transcend politics, bureaucracy and fear,” Rupnick said in a text message statement to Capitol News Illinois. “We’re looking forward to getting this across the finish line the next time the legislature reconvenes.”

Lawmakers will meet again this fall for their annual veto session. Exact dates for that session have not yet been announced.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi are now headquartered in northeast Kansas. But they once had a reservation in what is now Dekalb County, a reservation that officials now agree was illegally sold out from under them in 1850.

Shabbona Lake and State Park overlaps part of the land that once made up the original Potawatomi reservation. Other parts of the original reservation now include county-owned land and about 30 private homes, the titles to which are said to be clouded by the tribe’s legal claims to the land.

The proposed land transfer legislation, Senate Bill 867, would make up one part of a larger plan the tribe has to settle its legal claims and reestablish its presence in northern Illinois.

In exchange for title to the park land, Rupnick has said, the tribe has said it is pursuing federal legislation that would clear up titles to the remainder of the original reservation, with an understanding that the tribe would have a right of first refusal to buy those properties at fair market value if they ever come up for sale.

Meanwhile, the tribe has already acquired 130-acre tract in the area that the U.S. Department of the Interior recently took into trust, making it the only federally recognized tribal reservation in Illinois.

The bill that is still pending in the General Assembly would add another 1,500 acres to the tribe’s holdings, land that the federal government could then add to the reservation.

It would also authorize the Department of Natural Resources to deed the park property to the tribe for $1. It also calls on the department to enter into a land management agreement with the tribe, which has said it intends to keep the park open for public use, at least until it develops a long-term plan for the property.

Although the bill passed out of the Senate with bipartisan support, Republicans in the House indicated they had significant concerns about the deal. Among those was the fact that the state acquired the park land in the 1970s using federal grant dollars that came with a stipulation that the land be used for conservation.

If the tribe were to convert the land to some other purpose such as a casino or hotel development, Republicans argued, the state could be forced to repay the federal government a large percentage of the land’s present value, last appraised at $14.25 million.

Tribal officials insisted they had no plans to develop a casino, noting there is already a casino in Aurora, less than an hour away. Democrats, meanwhile, argued that the tribe would need to enter into a gaming compact with the state and obtain legislative approval before it could develop a casino.

Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, the lead House sponsor of the bill, said in an interview he was confident the bill had enough support to pass the House. But for procedural reasons, the House could not take a final vote on the bill until after midnight Wednesday morning, the same time House members were struggling to pass a budget package for the upcoming fiscal year.

That budget package included a revenue bill that the House voted on three times before it finally passed, by which time Guzzardi said members were too exhausted to vote on the Potawatomi land transfer legislation.

He said the bill now needs only one final vote in the House before it can be sent to Gov. JB Pritzker for his signature, and he said he was “very confident” there is sufficient support in the House to pass the bill when lawmakers return for the fall veto session.

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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Peter Hancock