St. Louis Post Dispatch- August 10, 2000


Author: Deirdre Shesgreen


In 1846, the Miami Indian tribe was forced at gunpoint to flee their upper Midwestern homelands for Kansas, only to be removed again about 10 years later to the northeastern corner of Oklahoma.

Now, the tribe is trying to reclaim some of its ancestral territory in Illinois -- possibly to build a casino -- in a lawsuit that seeks to eject landowners and farmers, some of whom have lived there for decades.

The tribe filed the suit in federal court in East St. Louis in June accusing 15 Illinois landowners -- one for each county in dispute -- of "trespassing" on Indian land. Invoking 200-year-old treaties and historical injustices committed against American Indians, the suit pits tribal rights against the property rights of current landholders.

While the suit is unlikely to result in a mass turnover of land to the tribe, the legal action has alarmed the people who live on the disputed 2.6 million acres in central and Southern Illinois, from Champaign to Effingham. The shockwaves have already been felt in Washington, where Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., has introduced legislation to give the Illinois residents new legal tools -- or to strip the tribe of its sovereignty, depending on whom you ask.

The legal battle began in June, when the tribe, called the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, filed a 26-page complaint in federal court in East St. Louis. The suit says the government violated two treaties, made with the tribe in 1795 and 1805, when it sold the Illinois land to white settlers.

"We have one of the original contracts with America, and it was never fulfilled," said George Tiger, a spokesman for the tribe. "We have a treaty that says the land was never ceded."

That was news to Rex Walden, a 98-year-old farmer who is named in the suit. The tribe claims to own the 80 acres where he has lived for decades.

"That old man's lived out there for 70 years, and the farm's been in the family for 140," said Walden's daughter, Pauline Eaton, who is serving as her father's spokeswoman in the suit. "He doesn't understand, why now? If they wanted the land, why didn't they come 100 years ago?" said Eaton, who is 70 and lives in Mahomet, Ill.

Josephine and Clarence Borries were similarly surprised when the Miami claimed title to about one third of their 200-acre farm in Teutopolis, where they've raised corn and soybeans for five decades.

"I couldn't believe it," said Josephine Borries, 72. Like other defendants, Borries said she believes the tribe is more interested in building a casino than in recouping any farmland.

"It's just a pressure thing to get the governor to give them a casino," she said of the suit.

Tiger, the Miami spokesman, denied that a casino is in the works. "The ultimate goal is to get the land back - period, exclamation point," Tiger said. He said the casino idea was "manufactured" by state officials who are seeking to tar the tribe.

Still, the tribe's lawyer, Thomas Osterholt of St. Louis, said a casino is "one alternative" tribe members will look at for economic development.

Osterholt said the tribe estimates that the current value of the land is $30 billion. If the tribe cannot recoup all of the land, gambling is one of the only business ventures that would provide enough compensation, he said.

He said that in negotiations two years ago, Illinois officials raised the possibility of a riverboat casino for the tribe, but the talks ended in a stalemate. Gambling revenue is already a key source of income for the Miami tribe, which has run a high-stakes bingo hall in Oklahoma for two years and also has a factory that makes electronic bingo games.

The suit recalls a much different time in American Indian culture. "The Miami Tribe lived, hunted, fished, foraged and farmed upon lands in what is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan," the suit says.

The tribe says that in the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 and the Treaty of Grouseland in 1805, the Miami ceded lands in Ohio and other states. But it never gave up its claim to the 2.6 million acres in Illinois.

The courts have been receptive to similar claims made by other tribes. In Texas, a federal court ruled in June that white settlers had illegally taken 2.8 million acres from the Alabama and Coushatta Indians. The ruling could allow the tribe to recoup millions of dollars.

And in New York, a jury recently awarded the Cayugas Indians $36.9 million for land that the court said was illegally acquired by the state.

Osterholt says that part of the reason Indian tribes are only now making such land claims is that they've only recently been given the tools to do so. One of the most important developments was a 1985 Supreme Court decision that sided with the Oneida tribe in its claim for 270,000 acres of ancestral land in New York.

William Broom, a Carbondale attorney hired to represent 14 of the defendants, said that the Oneida suit involved different issues because that tribe sued the state of New York; the Miami have sued individual landowners. (The Illinois Farm Bureau and other groups have donated funds to pay Broom's fees for his 14 clients, who do not have title insurance.)

The landowners may have gotten a boost this week, when the Illinois Attorney General's office filed a motion to intervene in the case and said the state will seek to have the suit dismissed.

In addition, Sen. Fitzgerald introduced a bill last month that would subject the tribe to certain state laws, such as time limits for bringing land claims. But Tiger, the Miami spokesman, said Fitzgerald's legislation attacks tribal sovereignty, and he's confident it won't go anywhere.

In the meantime, the two sides appear to be headed for a lengthy legal battle. A trial is set for June 18.

John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, said that such suits have often led to monetary settlements for the tribes. The case is a way of getting the settlement process going, Dossett said.

Eaton, the daughter of defendant Rex Walden, said the state and other defendants should mount a vigorous battle, because she fears that a settlement for the Miami tribe will just prompt other suits.

But Borries, the Teutopolis resident, said the state should look for ways - including giving the tribe a casino - to end the suit so she and other residents have peace of mind. Borries said she couldn't make "heads or tails" out of all the legalese and the treaties, but she sounded sympathetic to the tribe's claims.

"If the ground wasn't free to be sold, if the government didn't have title to it, how could they sell it?" she asked. "It's the federal government that's at fault here."

Color map by the POST-DISPATCH - Land claimed by Miami Tribe

Copyright (c) 2000 St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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