From Removal to Relocation: Native American People Return to Illinois


The story of American Indians in Illinois in the 19th century was one of forced removal out of the state (in most cases prior to white settlement, contrary to popular dime novel, Wild West Show, and Hollywood views of settlers fighting Indians, Indians burning cabins, etc.). This was enabled by a series of land cessions in treaties between the U.S. government and sovereign Indian nations that promised Native people’s land and annuities in compensation, and protection from further encroachment by white settlers (You might want to review the Online Essay: Assembling Illinois to refresh your memory or learn more about that topic).

But if the 19th century was all about movement of Native Americans out of the state, the 20th century was characterized by movement of Native people into Illinois. Take a look at this table:

U.S. Census Population Figures:
American Indians in Illinois - 1860-2000
1860: 32
1870: 32
1880: 140
1890: 98
1900: 16
1910: 188
1920: 194
1930: 469

1940: 624
1950: 1,443
1960: 4,704
1970: 11,413
1980: 16, 283
1990: 21,836
2000: 31,006 [73,161]

As you can see, Illinois never COMPLETELY removed all Native American people from the state…although the number of Native residents was extremely low during much of the 19th century.

What do we know about those Native people who remained in Illinois AFTER the “complete” removal in the 1830s?

What happened to those Native groups who left?

How do we account for the massive growth of Illinois’s Native American population during the last half of the 20th century?

In answering these questions, we are led to consider how American Indian people have retained their cultural identities in the face of such radical dislocation and change (removal, relocation, termination, increased rates of marriage between members of different tribes, increased rates of marriage to non-Indians, etc.). Specifically, it raises the issue of American Indian identity today: Who is an Indian? Who gets to decide?


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