Chicago Tribune- September 18, 1998


Author: Cornelia Grumman, Tribune Staff Writer.
Dateline: SHABBONA, Ill.

Wandering the gentle folds of this northern Illinois prairie nearly two centuries ago, Chief Shabbona surely did so with confidence that the peaceful thicket of cattails and blue joint grasses that he called home would remain his tribe's today, tomorrow and forever.

But then, the story goes, Shabbona's band of Ottawa Indians was forced off their land and pushed west of the Mississippi to make room for white settlers, in a scene repeated across history on Native American lands.

Today, in a campaign only now emerging in the public spotlight, those claiming to be direct descendants of Chief Shabbona's Ottawa band want 1,280 acres of state park and private farmland in DeKalb County back. Another tribe, the Miami, is trying to claim as rightfully its own an additional 2.6 million acres covering parts or all of 15 counties in southeastern Illinois.

State officials doubt the legal validity of the claims. They are taking them seriously, though, particularly because the tribes have indicated to Gov. Jim Edgar that they plan to file suit in federal court in coming weeks.

The officials also interpret the tribes' moves as the first step toward building land-based casinos in Illinois.

"We don't believe that there are any existing Native Indian tribes or individuals within Illinois that could make a legitimate claim," said Edgar spokesman Thomas Hardy.

"But I don't think you could say people shouldn't be interested or concerned about what is going on. If this gets into the federal courts . . . you never know what a particular judge is going to do and what an appeals court is going to hold."

The tribes say they hope to settle with the state for smaller amounts of comparable land and cash before the matter ever goes to the courts. But Hardy said the state has no intention of settling.

Instead, Illinois officials have been discussing the possibility of developing legislation to establish insurance for landowners against Indian claims and may even ask the congressional delegation to develop similar federal legislation.

"We are really not out to set up tepees and take over; our intent is never to displace anybody out of their homes," said Larry Angelo, second chief of the Oklahoma-based Ottawa tribe, with an estimated 26 families living in Illinois and 2,300 around the country. "Many in the tribe would state that we'd be willing to take land comparable to the land there in DeKalb County."

Both tribes also state their interest in reclaiming the land is for "economic development" purposes and to right some of the injustices wrought by greed, so-called manifest destiny and discrimination. But to the state officials who have sat through two years of uneasy discussions with the tribes, "economic development" could mean only one thing: land-based casinos.

"Gaming would be a possibility," conceded Les Cusher, executive director of the Miami tribe, based in Miami, Okla.

The complicated legal claims trace back more than 200 years, to land treaties signed with the X-marks of tribal chiefs and the loopy signatures of regional commissioners of the federal government. Yet part of the dispute boils down to details such as the difference between the words "band" and "heir," and whether tribal entitlement customarily is passed through fathers or mothers.

Such claims, while difficult to prove, nevertheless find precedents in other states.

In Maine and New York, land claims by two separate Indian tribes have resulted in or are nearing settlements for lesser amounts of public lands and cash.

Although discussions between Illinois government officials and tribes have been kept quiet, the claim has developed into something of a political hot potato among state officials, none of whom wants to step forward to handle the questioning that is likely to develop once landowners get wind of the legal challenge to their property.

Edgar's office wants Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan to handle the public fallout, but Ryan, in the middle of a re-election campaign, does not want to be directly involved.

And while the issue ultimately is up to federal arbiters to decide, both Edgar and Ryan still sense residents on those lands will turn to the state for leadership.

"This is potentially serious," Ryan said. "There are people living on the land that's apparently the target of these potential lawsuits. I'm sure if they know about it, they're nervous and concerned. That's why our office is willing to be available in any way we can, but I don't think the state is going to be directly involved except as mediator."

About 100 miles west of Chicago, the tiny town of Shabbona (pronounced "Sha-bo-nay") derives much of its identity--down to its street names--from Native Americans. But Mayor Pat McCormick, whose family has owned land in the disputed area for more than 100 years, said their claims are not welcome today.

"We would feel very much displaced if there was a takeover of the property by a group like this," he said. "People are rooted here, they have been here from 20 to 60 years, lifetimes, thinking they owned the land and had a clear title to it."

McCormick said he also worried that any land turned over to Native Americans would diminish the town's tax base.

Even Cusher acknowledges that land-reclamation attempts in other states have led to property value nose-dives.

"In other areas of the country, where somebody claimed lands, property values just stopped and people couldn't move their property," said Cusher, whose advice to landowners was to "call your governor and say, `Help us out, remove this uneasy feeling from us.' "

PHOTO: ``Gaming would be a possibility,'' says Les Cusher, executive director of the Oklahoma-based Miami tribe, referring to potential uses for land that the Indian group seeks in Downstate Illinois. State officials plan to fight the claims. Photo for the Tribune by Mike Simons/AP.
PHOTO: Land claimed by the Ottawa tribe includes the meadows and marshes of Shabbona Lake State Park in DeKalb County. Tribune photo by John Dziekan.
PHOTO: State officials have been holding discussions with the two tribes over their claims to Illinois land, including Shabbona Lake State Park. Tribune photo by John Dziekan.
MAP: Ottawa tribe: Disputed area: 1,280 acres. Location: Shabbonna.
Miami tribe: Disputed area: 2.6 million acres. Location: Covers parts or all of 15 counties.

Copyright 1998, Chicago Tribune


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