Potawatomi land transfer in DeKalb County advances in Illinois House

Concerns remain over group’s plans for the area, now Shabbona Lake State Park

SPRINGFIELD – A bill that would help the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation expand its newly established reservation in DeKalb County advanced out of a state House committee Tuesday, despite concerns about the tribe’s long-term plans for the property.

House Bill 4718 would authorize the state to hand over what is now Shabbona Lake and State Park to the tribe for $1. It also allows the tribe and the Department of Natural Resources to enter into a land management agreement under which the land would remain open to the public for recreational use for an unspecified period.

The bill is part of a larger effort by the Potawatomi to reclaim land that many historians and legal experts now agree was illegally taken from them in the mid-19th century. Since then, the tribe has been headquartered in northeast Kansas, but it has spent much of the past 20 years trying to reestablish a reservation on land it once owned in Illinois.

Those efforts came to fruition in April, when the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to place into trust 130 acres the tribe had purchased in DeKalb County, making it the only federally recognized tribal land in Illinois.

Prairie Band Potawatomi Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick, left, and Rep. Will Guzzardi testify before the House Executive Committee in favor of a bill to hand over roughly 1,500 acres of park land in DeKalb County to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock)

The proposed transfer of Shabbona Lake and State Park would add greatly to the acreage the tribe has acquired so far, and that land presumably would become eligible for inclusion in the new reservation. But some homeowners in the area who’ve become accustomed to living next to a state park said they’re nervous about the kind of changes their new tribal neighbors could bring to the area.

“A casino. I mean obviously, we’ve all had that conversation,” Becky Oest, whose family owns a home on property adjacent to the newly designated reservation, told the House Executive Committee.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi operates a hotel and casino complex on the reservation just north of Topeka, Kansas. But tribal Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick assured the House committee that the tribe has no such plans for the property in Illinois.

“That has not been our intention,” Rupnick said. “Thirty years ago, when there was no gaming in Illinois, we definitely pushed in that direction. Today, we’re just trying to make sure that we get the land secure.”

Rupnick insisted that the tribe’s immediate plans are to work with the IDNR to keep the property open for public recreation. But some Republicans on the committee questioned why, if the bill becomes law, the state should continue to pay for the operation of park land that it no longer would own.

The bill passed out of the committee on an 8-4 partisan vote. It now awaits final action in the House and Senate.

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.

Peter Hancock - Capitol News Illinois

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