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Wisconsin Ho-Chunk helps establish the first tribal reservation in Illinois

Casey Brown remembers traveling from his home in Wisconsin to the University of Illinois at Champaign as a child to protest the then-use of their mascot, Chief Illiniwek.

Brown, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, held a sign saying Native Americans are people, not mascots.

The word “mascot” comes from the Spanish term “mascota,” which means “pet.”

He said it was an easy decision to oppose race-based Native American mascots because he and many others didn't want to see a white person in “red face” running through Camp Randall Stadium in Madison while mocking Native Americans.

But as he stood at the protest, surrounded by fellow Ho-Chunk and members of other tribes in Wisconsin, he wondered why the tribes in Illinois hadn't organized opposition.

“That’s when I realized they didn’t exist here,” Brown said.

Illinois is one of 14 states without a federally recognized tribe within its borders.

That's now changing, thanks in part to the advocacy of Brown, other Ho Chunk members and members of the Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative, which includes members from tribes across the country.

Brown now lives in Illinois and works for the cooperative, which works to improve conditions for Native Americans in the Chicago area.

The effort to return 1,280 acres of reservation land in DeKalb County in northern Illinois to the Kansas-based Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation has taken nearly 200 years, but Brown believes the effort just needed an extra push to finally be approved.

That push came in February when Brown, other Ho-Chunk and his collaborators brought their pow-wow drums to the state capitol rotunda in Springfield.

It gathered lawmakers and their assistants from their offices and offered cooperation members the opportunity to discuss the issue with them.

“Often these legislators don’t understand all the issues. But when 20 people show up, they listen,” Brown said. “I’ve seen this work before.”

In a state with no tribal reservations and therefore no tribal representation, Brown understood why the issue wasn't a major concern for Illinois lawmakers.

If the Ho-Chunk president needed to speak to the governor of Wisconsin because of his experience in Wisconsin, it was within a few hours. In Illinois, Brown said he spent months arranging a meeting with Gov. JB Pritzker on behalf of the tribes. It still hasn't happened.

He said that's one reason it's important for a tribe to finally have federally recognized reservation land in Illinois.

“You get a seat at the table,” Brown said.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced April 19 that portions of the tribe's Shab-eh-nay reservation in northern Illinois will be transferred to the tribe's federal trust, meaning it will not be subject to local taxes or jurisdiction.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi has been fighting to reclaim the 1,280-acre reservation since it was illegally auctioned off 175 years ago in violation of a treaty between the tribal nation and the U.S. government.

“Prairie Band has sought to continue our history as an original part of DeKalb County and right historical wrongs,” Prairie Band Chairman Joseph Rupnick said in a statement. “We have been demanding this recognition and what is rightfully ours for almost 200 years.”

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, whose district includes the reservation, supported the move.

“The decision to transfer portions of the Shab-eh-nay Reservation into trust is an important step toward returning the land that is rightfully theirs, and it is my great honor to represent the first federally recognized reservation in Illinois,” she said in a statement.

Prairie Band officials said they have no immediate plans for the land and said all current non-tribal homeowners will continue to retain ownership of their land and live in their homes undisturbed.

Brown said other tribes, including some in Wisconsin, also have claims to reservation land in Illinois.

Some tribes, such as the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, own large tracts of land in Illinois, but they are not subject to federal trust.

Brown said the Prairie Band's victory opens the door for more federally recognized tribes to reclaim reservations in Illinois, including some from Wisconsin, now that Illinois lawmakers are aware of the issue.

He said he was also helping the effort through U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who became the first Native American to lead the department in its 171-year history under the Biden administration.

“She reminds me of Ada Deer,” Brown said of the longtime Wisconsin Native American advocate who died in 2023. “Haaland was inspired by Ada.”

Frank Vaisvilas is a former Report for America Corps member who covers Native American issues in Wisconsin at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Contact him at [email protected] or 815-260-2262. Keep following him Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank.

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