Pritzker signs bills expanding protections for Native Americans

Signing ceremony takes place on land that could return to tribal hands

Gov. JB Pritzker speaks at a bill signing ceremony in Chicago Friday, Aug 4, 2023, before signing three measures extending cultural protections to Native Americans in Illinois and requiring the teaching of Native American history in public schools.

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. JB Pritzker signed a package of bills Friday extending cultural protections to Native Americans in Illinois and requiring the teaching of Native American history in public schools.

At a bill signing ceremony in Schaumburg, Pritzker highlighted three historic sites that were significant in Native American history in Illinois – the Buel House along the Cherokee Trail of Tears in Pope County; the Pierre Menard Home in Randolph County; and the Kincaid Mounds that contain the remains of a Native American city – and said Illinois needs to acknowledge its role in a dark chapter of history.

“All three of these sites are located within our state’s borders and they represent some of the ugliest parts of our history,” he said. “It’s up to us to right the wrongs of the past and to chart a new course, one that educates our people so we won’t repeat the sins of the past.”

House Bill 3413, the Human Remains Protection Act, establishes procedures for handling human remains and gravesites that are uncovered in Illinois. It also authorizes the Department of Natural Resources to work with the Illinois State Museum and representatives of tribes with historical ties to Illinois to establish a cemetery for the reburial of repatriated Native American remains and materials.

Illinois has the second-largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains in the U.S., housed by the Illinois State Museum. The museum holds that collection despite the 1990 passage of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Senate Bill 1446 requires school districts to allow students to wear items of cultural, ethnic or religious significance at their high school graduation. It was prompted in part by an incident in 2022 when a Native American student, Nimkii Curley, at Evanston Township High School was told he could not walk across the stage to receive his diploma with an eagle feather and bead work on his cap and gown.

And House Bill 1633 mandates instruction in Native American history in all social studies courses that teach American history and government.

Among those attending the bill signing Friday was Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. That nation was once based in DeKalb County, Illinois, but the U.S. General Land Office seized that land in 1849 and sold it at a public auction.

The nation is now headquartered in northeast Kansas where it operates a hotel and casino, but legislation pending in Congress would return more than 130 acres to the Potawatomi and provide them with about $50 million in settlement funds that could be used to reacquire additional land on or near the original reservation.

“The bills signed here into law today make it clear that Illinois understands, it is not enough for us to merely exist in a country, in a state built on Native American land, but we must be included as part of the society with equal rights and respect,” Rupnick said.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Peter Hancock - Capitol News Illinois

Peter Hancock covers Illinois news and and politics for Capitol News Illinois