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St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)

May 9, 2002 Thursday Five Star Lift Edition


LENGTH: 588 words


BYLINE: Deirdre Shesgreen Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau


American Indian representatives and several House Democrats expressed concern Wednesday about legislation that would protect Illinois landowners from legal claims by tribes that say they were forcibly removed from the state more than 100 years ago.

But three Illinois lawmakers, testifying at a congressional hearing, said the bill was a balanced and fair approach to a dispute over land in central and Southern Illinois.

Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill., said the bill is an effort "to reach an equilibrium of justice between the landowners I represent and the claim of the Miami tribe." He is the bill's main sponsor.

The measure would extinguish any claim by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma to 2.6 million acres, stretching from Champaign to Effingham, against the landowners and instead allow the tribe to sue the federal government for any reparations. The bill would also nix similar claims by two other tribes to land in northern Illinois, including part of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district.

The Miami tribe says it was forcibly removed and its land was given away in violation of two treaties.

Reps. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and David Phelps, D-Eldorado, also testified in support of the bill. The two lawmakers are vying to represent Illinois' new 19th Congressional District, which will include three of the 15 counties at issue in the dispute.

Shimkus said the bill was a fair solution for both sides.

"First, it protects the property owners in Illinois, who have acted in good faith and done nothing wrong," he said. "Second, it provides the tribes recourse to the federal courts."

At the same time, Shimkus dismissed the Miami tribe's claim to the land, saying it was without merit and was really driven by the desire for a casino.

Phelps said "it's no secret that Native Americans have been treated wrongly in the past." But he said the Illinois landowners should not face the loss of their property.

No one from the Miami tribe testified at Wednesday's hearing. In the past, the tribe has denied that its goal is a casino, saying that accusation was manufactured by critics to tar the tribe's claim.

In 2000, the tribe filed a lawsuit to reclaim the land, naming 15 landowners in Illinois as defendants. It withdrew that suit last year but said it would still pursue the claim.

In written testimony, Floyd Leonard, chief of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, said the tribe strongly opposes the bill. He said the measure is not a settlement at all but is rather a bold and unprecedented abrogation of treaties made with the tribe and a confiscation of tribal land.

Other tribal representatives at Wednesday's hearing said the bill would override attempts by the tribes to find a resolution to the dispute through negotiation.

The bill would "short-circuit both the legal and the settlement processes and would perpetrate even more injustices against these tribes," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "Congress cannot simply resolve Indian land claims in this one-sided fashion."

Several Democrats on the panel, the House Resources Committee, echoed her concern.

"This is a major change in policy," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. "It sets a bad precedent ... that we're sort of willy-nilly extinguishing land claims" without giving tribes an opportunity to negotiate resolutions.

The committee has not scheduled a vote on the measure. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has introduced a similar bill in the Senate, but it hasn't moved forward.

Reporter Deirdre Shesgreen:; E-mail:; Phone: 202-298-6880

LOAD-DATE: May 9, 2002


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