Stateline Story

Indian Land Claim Stirs Passions in Illinois

SPRINGFIELD, Il. -- On an Illinois map, Native American namesakes abound. There are the towns of Pontiac, Algonquin, Shawneetown and Calumet City and the counties of Iroquois and Winnebago. Illinois' largest city, Chicago, drew its name from an Indian word meaning either "wild onion" or "skunk." And the state's name is derived from a Native American term for "tribe of superior men."

Against that backdrop, a 2,250-member Indian tribe in Oklahoma, which traces its roots to Illinois, is attempting to reclaim its past in federal court and has locked horns with Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma has sued more than two dozen landowners for 2.6 million acres in east-central Illinois that the tribe says was wrongfully taken by the federal government 170 years ago.

The battle, which could open the door for the tribe to open the first Indian-run casino in Illinois, has pitted the tribe against anti-gambling activists and angry, disbelieving residents who have farmed the land for generations.

"We feel like we own this land,'' said George Tiger, a spokesman for the tribe. "Indian tribal governments today have learned the battles are won in courtrooms. We've just learned how to play the game."

But Gov. Ryan dismisses the tribe's ownership claim, and he has pledged to fight any Indian efforts to bring casino gambling to the state - an idea floated by the tribe as a possible compromise to resolve the dispute that was first raised with former Gov. Edgar.

"Our attorneys have researched the issue. We don't see any merit to their claim that these lands should be restored," Ryan spokesman Dave Urbanek said. "The bottom line is they want a land-based casino. The governor is not inclined to go beyond the current law and grant them a land-based casino. We're under no obligation at all to do what they want."

Anti-gambling activists agree with Ryan.

"It's patently absurd. Native Americans can't come into a state and force a governor to do anything. This is a sovereign nation,'' said the Rev. Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion.

The Miamis have obtained land south of Kansas City, Kans., in a bid to build a casino. But arguing the Miamis are not indigenous to Kansas, officials there are fighting federal efforts that could grant the tribe a gambling license.

The move in Illinois is the latest in a series of legal battles being waged by Indian tribes in bids to reclaim their ancestral homelands. So far, the fights have bore some success for the tribes.

"Courts have recognized the validity of these claims," said Keith Harper, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Washington, D.C.

In New York, the Oneida Indians are seeking the return of 250,000 acres of land in Madison and Oneida counties in a federal lawsuit that has been in play since the mid-1970s. During that time, the tribe has opened a casino and used profits to buy up to 8,000 acres from willing sellers in those counties.

In 1993, the Catawba Indians settled with South Carolina for $50 million and won rights to 3,500 acres whenever it is sold. And in Connecticut, the Pequot Indians settled its land claim with the state for $900,000 and a declaration that the Pequots are a sovereign nation, allowing the tribe to develop casinos and bingo halls.

And in 1980, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes won an $81.5 million settlement from Maine. Under that deal, the Indians gained first rights to buy up to 300,000 acres when the land comes up for sale.

As the basis for its arguments in Illinois, the Miamis point to an 1805 treaty in which the federal government recognized land in present-day Illinois in the Wabash River watershed as belonging to the Miamis.

In the 1830s, the tribe said, that agreement was scrapped without the Miamis' agreement and as many as 12,000 tribe members were forced to relocate to Kansas with "significant" casualties along the way. Thirty years later, another forced migration moved them to their current home near Miami, Okla.

The land in question covers parts of 15 counties and is populated by more than 200,000 people. Mostly farmland, it is larger in size than an area encompassing all of Chicago and its suburbs.

For those being sued, there is dismay, skepticism and anger, particularly given that the families of many of the defendants in the Miami lawsuit have farmed their ground for generations.

"If you ask me, I think this is a bunch of bull----," said Clarence Borries, a 72-year-old retired farmer from Effingham County, whose family has owned its property since the 1870s. "We've raised 11 kids here, and someone shouldn't be able to take it away.

"Like I told my son,'' he continued, "maybe we ought to get a bunch of shotgun shells on hand. We might need them.''

Tiger said his tribe hasn't decided what to do with the land's present-day occupants if it somehow prevails in its lawsuit. But he said he and his tribe empathize with the feelings of the landowners they are now suing.

"The feelings people have had and what they are expressing today is similar to what our people expressed at a time when many Indians were removed to strange areas. Indian people were in the same situation. And at the time, I'm sure our people thought it was BS too,'' he said.

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