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The U.S. Department of the Interior has placed portions of the historic Shab-eh-nay Reservation into trust for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, establishing it as the only federally recognized tribal nation in Illinois.

Following an inspection this morning, the Kansas-based tribe signed a deed transferring 130 acres of land in northern Illinois to the federal government, according to the tribe. The land-into-trust acquisition had been approved in late February, according to a public notice on March 7.  

The transfer today comes some 175 years after the illegal auctioning of 1,280 acres of Prairie Band's reservation land in northern Illinois. Chief Shab-eh-nay, a pivotal figure in Prairie Band's history, had traveled from his home reservation in present-day DeKalb County to visit family in Kansas when the Illinois land was unlawfully sold. The tribe has spent nearly two centuries trying to reclaim the land. 

"This is a historic day," Joseph Rupnick, Prairie Band chairman and the fourth-generation great-grandson of Chief Shab-eh-nay, told Tribal Business News. “Words can’t describe how I feel. This has been a fight that’s been ongoing for 180 years, and finally we actually got it done.”

The trust designation transfers the legal title of the land to the United States government, confirming the land as "Indian country" and enabling the tribe to exercise its sovereignty over the land, which is located in the northeast corner of the Shab-eh-nay reservation, adjacent to Shabbona Lake State Park in Dekalb County.

The map shows the former reservation and highlights (in pink) the location of the land taken into trust for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. (Courtesy of the tribe)The map shows the former reservation and highlights (in pink) the land taken into trust for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. (Courtesy photo)

Rupnick said the tribe had no immediate plans for the land. With the land-into-trust acquisition completed, it now falls to the Prairie Band's tribal council to move forward with plans, he said.

While there are no concrete plans for the land right now, the tribe has previously considered the land for economic development purposes, including a proposed  gaming and government facility named for Chief Shab-eh-nay in 2014.

Over the last decade, the tribe’s economic development arm has also been actively acquiring and growing non-gaming businesses to fund services for Prairie Band citizens. The land’s proximity to Chicago and access to interstate highways near Wisconsin and Iowa could make it attractive for other types of development.

Whatever the future looks like, today’s actions underscore a commitment to righting historical wrongs and preserving the rich history and culture of the original inhabitants of DeKalb County, according to the tribe’s statement. 

“175 years ago, our federal government unlawfully sold the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s land in Illinois,” U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood (IL-14) said in a statement. Underwood, who co-sponsored legislation to settle the tribe’s claims to the reservation, called the decision to put portions of the Shab-eh-nay Reservation into federal trust “an important step to returning the land that is rightfully theirs” to the tribe.

The Senate is working through similar legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and co-sponsored by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Roger Marshall (R-KS.)  Notably, both bills would extinguish the tribe’s claim to all but the 128 acres taken into trust. 

However, the state of Illinois also proposed legislation as recently as March 2024 to convey the entirety of Shabbona State Park — approximately 1,500 acres — to the tribe. The measure would return the whole of the Shab-eh-nay Reservation to the Prairie Band, if passed. Rupnick said he would be traveling to Springfield, Illinois in May to testify in favor of the bill. 

The Prairie Band said it has sought the least disruptive path to recovering this land for current residents and homeowners. All current homeowners whose land is on the reservation will continue to retain title to their land and to live in their homes undisturbed, according to the tribe’s statement. 

Tribal Business News has reached out to the Department of Interior for comment, but has not heard back on the request. 

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