Tensions run high as DeKalb County Board again considers support of Potawatomi Nation

Elected officials fall among largely partisan lines debating whether to back ceremonial letter of congratulations to Nation

Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation spoke to the DeKalb County Committee of the Whole on May 8, 2024, and said he hopes the Nation will be able to receive right of first refusal for properties sold within the boundaries of the reservation.

SYCAMORE – Tensions ran high during a Wednesday DeKalb County Board committee meeting, as members discussed whether a resolution congratulating the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation for regaining sovereign lands should get a County Board vote.

The U.S. Department of Interior placed the reservation, which is in Shabbona, into a trust for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, according to an April 19 news release from the department.

Some DeKalb County Board Executive Committee members were unsure if DeKalb County government should congratulate the Nation for having the first federally recognized reservation in Illinois within the boundaries of DeKalb County.

“Everybody wants their piece but they forget whose piece it was,” said DeKalb County Board member Terri Mann-Lamb, a Democrat from District 7, after a contentious committee discussion.

The committee elected to put forward a vote – expected May 15 – that would be largely symbolic and have no bearings on public policy. Instead, board members will vote whether to back a resolution – a letter of congratulations – for the Potawatomi Nation’s recent trust acquisition.

Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation told the DeKalb County Board committee Wednesday that land the Nation previously repurchased are the only parcels that have been placed into a trust. Thirty landowners have property that exists within the boundaries of the reservation, however.

“That’s it, that boundary still exists, that reservation still exists,” Rupnick said. “We live on a reservation in Kansas that many consider checkerboard. That means there are actually non-tribal folks that actually own land on the reservation, and we are in that same, similar situation here today. There are folks that have land, that have owned for, geez, I don’t know how long, and we hope that we can pass federal legislation that would clear their title.”

Rupnick, a direct descendent of Chief Shab-eh-nay, maintains that under the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi Nation ceded 5 million acres of land to the U.S. government, but some land was previously set aside in the 1829 treaty of Prairie du Chien for Chief Shab-eh-nay and his descendants because of his peacemaking efforts.

Wednesday, Rupnick said properties on land set aside for his ancestors have “clouded titles” because title searches on the properties will have a disclaimer stating the property is subject to any sale or conveyance by Chief Shab-eh-nay and his descendants. He said the Nation hopes to gain the right of first refusal for the land if current property owners go to sell.

“This is historic, I don’t care where you’re at on this issue. This is someone that is claiming back what was taken, all of us should feel some sense of endearment, satisfaction and congratulatory spirit and it would be shameful if someone sitting here doesn’t feel that.”

—  Ellingsworth Webb, Democrat and DeKalb County Board chairman

Two pieces of federal legislation, which Rupnick said would would clear the clouded titles, were filed in 2023. U.S. Reps. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Chicago, Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, and four others cosponsored House Resolution 3144. And U.S. senators Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall, both Kansas Republicans, cosponsored Senate Bill 1492. Neither bill has received action from legislators in a year, however.

The legislation would do more than clear titles. It would establish a federally recognized narrative of the events that lead to the creation and theft of the Nation’s land, and $50 million in compensation.

According to the filed legislation, the Potawatomi Nation and other tribes ceded land in northern Illinois in a treaty signed July 29, 1829, commonly known as the Second Treaty of Prairie du Chien.

Potawatomi Chief Shab-eh-nay and his Band at their village near Paw Paw Grove, however, were allowed to keep two parcels of land, totaling 1,280 acres. That land became known as the Shab-eh-nay Band Reservation, which is now in Shabbona and much of it includes Shabbona Lake State Park. In 1849, while Shab-eh-nay was visiting relatives who had been forced to move to Kansas, the land was sold by the General Land Office of the United States at a public auction, according to the bills filled in Congress.

According to those federal documents, land within the reservation or reservation replacement area may not be acquired by condemnation or eminent domain and can be acquired only through purchase with payment of the land’s fair market value.

Becky Oest, a Shabbona resident and administrator of a Facebook group called Shabbona Lake friends against Potawatomi takeover, attended Wednesday’s committee meeting to speak against the proposed resolution.

“We feel people need to be more educated on what is going on around us,” Oest said.

Her private Facebook group has more than 200 members as of Thursday.

“It keeps being stated that our titles are cloudy. We are bonafide purchasers. We have an attorney that we have spoken to several times, and he does not believe that titles being cloudy is even a legal term,” Oest said, before alleging the jargon is being used in an attempt to make land owners not related to the Nation “look bad.”

While speaking to the DeKalb County Board Executive Committee on May 8, 2024, Shabbona resident Keith Haag said he was flabbergasted by the U.S. Department of Interiors decision to place portions of the Shab-eh-nay Reservation into a trust for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in April, making the reservation first of it's kind federally recognized in Illinois.

Oest wasn’t the only member of the public to speak against the reservation’s recognition Wednesday. Keith Haag, another Shabbona resident, said he was flabbergasted when he heard the news.

Haag, a retired DeKalb County Sheriff’s deputy, said he’s concerned property values will go down if the Nation is given right of first refusal for land sold within the reservation’s boundary by current property owners.

“I want you to imagine that you had a piece of property in a place you just bought, and you love it, and all of a sudden it’s going to be taken away from you,” Haag said. “By taken away I mean, they’re not going to take away your property but they want to have right of first refusal.”

Haag said he’s worried the Potawatomi Nation will be the only party interested in purchasing the property.

The committee voted 6-3 to send the resolution to the full DeKalb County Board for a vote, expected Wednesday. If approved, the resolution will issue public congratulations to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation on regaining sovereign lands in DeKalb County. The resolution also would state that the DeKalb County Board looks forward to building a positive working relationship with the Nation.

Five Democrats on the committee – Scott Campbell, from District 7; Rukisha Crawford, from District 6; Michelle Pickett, from District 8, DeKalb County Board Chair Ellingsworth Webb, from District 9, and Mann-Lamb – voted in favor of sending the resolution to the full board for a vote.

Three Republican Board members on the committee voted against the measure, including Executive Committee Chair John Frieders from District 12, Kathy Lampkins from District 2 and Roy Plote from District 11.

Before the vote, Plote – whose constituents include Shabbona Township residents – asked to have DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato look over the congratulatory resolution before the DeKalb County Board meeting May 15.

Campbell argued other resolutions are brought to a full board vote without that step, or while the review is pending.

“We have routinely had resolutions for amendments to county code, and various things that have actual weight of law that we review in executive committee – and somebody questions some of the language or asks the state’s attorney, and we forward it on pending that review. And to stop this because of that, I’m sorry, is disingenuous,” Campbell said. “Now this is a resolution congratulating somebody of something, this has no weight of law. This is us saying that we recognize a historic injustice has moved forward toward justice, and there shouldn’t be a reason to not say congratulations to people that accomplished that.”

Frieders said he’s worried the county is being put in the middle, between Shabbona residents and the Potawatomi Nation. Lampkins pondered aloud the difference between a symbolic vote of congratulations and an endorsement from the County Board.

Patrick Deutsch, from District 2, was the first Republican up to vote in the roll call, and was the lone member of his party to vote in favor of sending the resolution to the DeKalb County Board.

Before the vote commenced, Webb stressed the significance of the first federally recognized reservation in Illinois being within DeKalb County.

“This is historic. I don’t care where you’re at on this issue,” Webb said. “This is someone that is claiming back what was taken, all of us should feel some sense of endearment, satisfaction and congratulatory spirit and it would be shameful if someone sitting here doesn’t feel that.”

This story was edited at 5:35 p.m. May 10, 2024, to correct an earlier error in a quote by DeKalb County Board Member Terri Mann-Lamb, which should read “Everybody wants their piece but they forget whose piece it was.”

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