Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, The (IL)

June 16, 2001

Page: A-1 A-6

Native Americans
Miami (Native American tribe)
land claims

Miami say land fight isn't over
Central Illinois leaders on guard for next move

Author: J. PHILIP BLOOMER; News-Gazette Staff Writer

Article Text:

CHAMPAIGN The Miami tribe may have dropped its lawsuit, but leaders from central Illinois aren't letting down their guard.

U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson said Friday that legislation authored with Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert to force the tribe to negotiate with the federal government remains on track.

"I don't intend and the Speaker doesn't intend to back off our legislation," Johnson said.

He also said state legislators don't see the issue dissolving.

"They might take a political route. They've hired the biggest lobbyists in Washington, D.C." Johnson was referring to the tribe's recent hiring of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, a law firm and lobbying firm.

Similarly, Scott Mulford, a spokesman for Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, said that the legal defense fund established by the Legislature remains available for the coming budget year starting July 1.

The fund contains a new $100,000 for landowners named in the suit, on top of the $100,000 made available last year by the state. Mulford said the state has received about $57,000 worth of bills from the landowners' attorney and some more bills are outstanding.

Champaign County has also provided $10,000 for the defense fund.

The tribe's attorneys announced Thursday that they were dropping the suit they had filed last July against owners of 15 properties in 15 East Central Illinois counties. The tribe claimed that it is the rightful owner of about 2.6 million acres under the 1805 federal Treaty of Grouseland.

In Thursday's announcement, lawyers for the tribe said that they were dropping their suit but not their claim.

Johnson's legislation would require the tribe to take its land claim directly to the U.S. government.

The bill would waive the federal government's sovereign immunity only in the case of the Miami lawsuit. The measure would also remove the individual landowners from the legal dispute, ensuring that they would keep their land, even if the tribe won. The bill has been put in the House Committee on Resources.

If the courts determine the tribe has a right to compensation, "monetary damages shall be the only available remedy," according to the proposal.

Johnson said his bill, which is also supported by the state's two senators, would create ideal results for Illinois by forcing the issue into the federal Court of Claims.

"But I can only anticipate what they might do. You always have to assume there might be one more strike and you have to be prepared for it. At least for now, justice is served. But they've pursued about every avenue you can imagine and I wouldn't put anything beyond them."

Leslie Turner, the tribe's attorney, said there will definitely be other avenues pursued.

"The tribe will pursue a legal strategy that is designed to reach the merits of its land claim rather than getting sidetracked by unnecessary procedural issues concerning the state's role in litigation," she said in the announcement. "The tribe will soon take new action to zero in on the merits of its land claim and hopes ultimately to arrive at a comprehensive conclusion satisfactory to all."

Rich Porter, founder of the Paxton-based Say No, Stop the Casino group, cautioned politicians and the public not to let down their guard.

He believes the Miami's new lawyers recognized that the tribe's previous strategy against the landowners created an environment of ill will that they're now trying to reverse.

"All they did was embitter a lot of innocent people. Now I expect them to focus on the state, which is big government and more impersonal. They can make big government look bad and talk about their heritage and culture and gain some sympathy.

"We don't for a moment believe anything has changed regarding their intent to create a casino," Porter said.

Royce Baier, another member of the group, said the group intends to remain vigilant in trying to educate the public and politicians on the issues surrounding the claims.

The tribe's law firm is being bankrolled by New York mall and casino developer Thomas Wilmot Sr.

"We can't fight Wilmot with money. He's got more than all of us. He's probably circling the Brinks trucks right now," Baier said. "But we can fight him with education."

State representatives from throughout the area issued statements saying they were uniformly gratified at the suit's dismissal and uniformly wary of what the next move by the Miami's attorneys might be.

"I find it ironic that the tribe states that they dismissed the suit out of fairness to the local landowners when they are the ones who filed it in the first place," said state Rep. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon.

"While this is a wonderful victory for the 15 landowners, the battle may not be over," he said. "It's possible that the tribe is merely shifting the focus of their suit and will now challenge the federal or state government directly, but I hope that is not the case. I hope we have finally put this issue to rest."

Copyright (c) 2001 The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette
Record Number: 0ECC9D69F9F5CBBE


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