DeKalb County Board passes congrats to Potawatomi Nation despite Republican opposition

Despite some resident pushback, partisan vote congrats Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation on reservation

Becky Oest, a Shabbona resident and administrator of a Facebook group called Shabbona Lake friends against Potawatomi takeover, asked DeKalb County Board on May 15, 2024, to vote down a resolution that congratulates the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation for regaining sovereign lands in DeKalb County.

SYCAMORE – The DeKalb County Board this week voted to congratulate the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation after the federal government earlier this spring put 130 acres of land into a trust for the Nation.

It was largely a ceremonial vote that bears no policy-making power but faced mostly Republican opposition and pushback from some vocal Shabbona residents who voiced concerns that the now federally recognized tribal land could impact their home values or bring unwanted development to the area.

The U.S. Department of Interior placed lands previously repurchased by the Potawatomi Nation into a trust for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, according to an April 19 news release from the department. The action formally made the land in Shabbona the first federally recognized reservation in Illinois.

DeKalb County Board member Roy Plote, a Republican from District 11, represents the residents of Shabbona and said his constituents made their voice clear to him over the days preceding Wednesday night’s vote.

“I have not had one call in favor of this, so being in my district, I will be voting no,” said Plote, who arrived 18 minutes after the board meeting commenced.

Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick, tribal chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, speaks at a news conference at the Illinois Capitol in February.

The Nation has spent $10 million over the past 20 years to repurchase 130 acres of the Shab-eh-nay Reservation, located in southern DeKalb County, that the federal government illegally sold out from under Chief Shab-eh-nay around 1850, Capitol News Illinois reported. The Nation also continues to seek the title to about 1,500 acres, mostly that encompass Shabbona Lake State Park.

Some members of the public, however – as many as 20 Shabbona residents attended the meeting – said they were concerned Wednesday’s resolution could influence congressional lawmaking decisions. Potawatomi Nation officials have for years lobbied for the federal government to reclaim the Nation’s land in southern DeKalb County.

Plote was joined by six other Republicans in a 11-7 vote, largely along party lines, voting against the public congratulations to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation on regaining sovereign lands in DeKalb County.

Joseph Marcinkowski, a Republican from District 11, joined his cohort in voting no.

“It’s a very clouded issue, and it’s mainly a federal issue. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the county in particular other than the Chief Shabbona Forest Reserve that we hold,” said Marcinkowski, who later added he didn’t want his constituent’s property titles to be impacted.

Anna Wilhelmi, the head of the DeKalb County Democratic Party, spoke during the meeting’s public comment period and said she was supportive of the resolution.

“I’m very proud,” Wilhelmi said. “This is a very historic moment in DeKalb County, and they are our people.”

Board member Maureen Little, from District 1, was the only Republican to vote in favor of the resolution. Republican board members Laurie Emmer, Benjamin Haier, Rhonda Henke and Savannah Ilenikhena, as well as Democratic board members Laura Hoffman and Terri Mann-Lamb did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.

The resolution that was approved in their absence states the DeKalb County Board looks forward to building a positive working relationship with the Nation. Tim Bagby, head of the DeKalb County Republican Party who represents District 3, said he believes the resolution should have instead said that the County Board will continue what already exists: Since the Potawatomi Nation has an an intergovernmental agreement with DeKalb County since 2008.

A map of the 130 acres of land the Prairie Band purchased in DeKalb County that now makes up the tribe’s federally recognized reservation.

No casino planned, says Potawatomi Nation Chairman

Becky Oest, a Shabbona resident and administrator of a Facebook group called Shabbona Lake friends against Potawatomi takeover, also voiced opposition to the resolution.

During May’s Executive Committee meeting Democratic board members said the Potawatomi Nation had suffered a historic injustice, and saw no reason not to congratulate the tribe for regaining sovereignty over some of the land lost two centuries ago.

Oest said she and many of the Shabbona residents are concerned about potentially losing Shabbona Lake State Park to the Potawatomi Nation.

“It’s not our intention to not say this is a historic event, but I feel – and I think a lot of other people feel too – that if you’re going to celebrate this in such a big way, I would hope that you would support your taxpayers in a big way as well,” Oest said. “We don’t want to lose the state park. So in the future I would hope to see some support for us the same way that you’re supporting the Potawatomi in this reservation celebration.”

According to an FAQ on the Nation’s website, the tribe intends to keep the park open if legislation is passed.

“Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation has committed to keep the park open to the public, and to improve the infrastructure and experience of the park if the legislation passes and is signed into law,” the FAQ reads.

Peter Dordal of Shabbona and Edmond Leeney of Waterman said they are not proponents of the Department of Interior’s decision, and they questioned the authenticity of the Nation’s claim to the land. They said they don’t want to see a casino built in the area.

Nation Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick, a direct descendent of Chief Shab-eh-nay, told county officials earlier this month the tribe does not plan to build a casino on the reservation.

“We’ve kind of looked at where we’re at, maybe 30 years ago when the Nation was first pursuing this it made sense but now we’re kind of isolated. Rockford has a casino going up 30 miles to the north, you’ve got Aurora and all these other ones all around the different areas,” Rupnick said May 8. “We’re blocked in. We’re on a two-lane road, not very good access, so we’re going to have to look at other opportunities that we would hope would benefit the Nation and the community as well.”

Rupnick maintains that under the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi Nation ceded 5 million acres of land to the U.S. government. Some land, however, 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.

Plote and Marcinkowski said they aren’t sure they believe the Potawatomi’s claims to the land.

Rupnick has also said properties on land set aside for his ancestors have “clouded titles,” – a claim Oest refutes – and that the Nation hopes to gain the right of first refusal for the land if current property owners go to sell.

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 also 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 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.

Oest, Dordal and others said they don’t like that the Nation is seeking to gain the right of first refusal on their property, and worry it could lower their property’s value if they go to sell it.

“We have invested a lot of money in what we own, a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and people have worked their whole lives for these properties,” said Susan Cox of Shabbona. “This is very dear to our hearts. You’re taking away our generational ... wealth that we can pass on to our children.”

The Nation addressed those concerns in an FAQ on its website, however.

“No one understands what it feels like to lose the place you call home better than Indians,” the tribe’s FAQ reads. “That’s why Prairie Band has sought to reclaim our land free of lawsuits and in the least disruptive way possible for the current residents and homeowners. We are committed to ensuring that current homeowners can continue to retain title to their land and to live in their homes undisturbed.”

Hannah Meisel from Capitol News Illinois contributed.

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