Land Dispute Puts Pressure on Congress
By Bob Holliday, Pantagraph staff
January 29, 2002
PAXTON — U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson is not pushing hard enough on a bill to exempt property owners from Indian tribal land disputes, advocates for the landowners say.
Rich and Donae Porter fear inaction in Congress may spur the Miami Indians to re-file a lawsuit over their tribal claims to 2.6 million acres in east-central Illinois.
Johnson, however, said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks preoccupied Congress, delaying action on the bill. He said he’s hoping for action in March or April.
“We’re doing all we can,” said Johnson.
The Urbana Republican’s bill would end the federal government’s immunity to lawsuits in this and other Indian land disputes. If the bill becomes law, the Miami then could target their lawsuit at the federal government and not individual landowners.
“This is a problem that must be solved in the Congress,” Rich Porter said. “It’s not fair to the Indians or the people of Illinois to stall this.”
The Miami had sued 15 landowners — one per county in east-central Illinois — to press their claim. The tribe argues the United States violated land rights guaranteed in an early 19th-century treaty.
The Miami dropped the lawsuit last June. Tribal leaders said they were shifting their legal strategy to lobby Congress and court public opinion.
Johnson believes his bill also was a force behind the tribe’s decision to drop the suit.
But the option of re-filing remains. In fact, Tony Leone, a Springfield-based lobbyist for the tribe, said Monday that he couldn’t rule anything out.
Jim Eichhorst, Johnson’s chief of staff, agreed the bill, which was introduced in March 2001, needs action.
“We’d love to have it taken care of yesterday,” said Eichhorst. Johnson staff members are trying to find a bill to which they can attach the immunity measure as an amendment.
Eichhorst agreed fears that the Miami could re-file their lawsuit are legitimate.
The Porters, who are leaders of Paxton-based “Say No. Stop the Casino,” argue the Miami are using the land dispute as a wedge to get approval to build an Indian-owned casino in Ford County.
Porter said such a casino could draw customers from the Chicago suburbs as well as Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal.
Illinois Asks Judge To Dismiss Suit
April 20, 2000
BENTON, Ill. (AP) – The state asked a federal judge Friday to dismiss a lawsuit that Miami Indians have filed against private property owners as the tribe seeks to reclaim land it says it was guaranteed in a 1805 treaty.
The tribe had sued 15 property owners, claiming the land on which they live and farm is part of 2.6 million acres of eastern Illinois that the Miami people were promised forever.
The state said the lawsuit is without merit. “Neither history nor subsequent legal proceedings support the tribe’s position” that the Miami never gave up their claim to the land, state lawyers wrote in a motion filed in U.S. District Court.
The state also said the federal Indian Claims Commission long ago rejected the tribe’s claims to Illinois land.
The tribe’s attorney, Tom Osterholt of St. Louis, said the Miami never filed a claim with the commission about the specific land in question.
Attorney General Jim Ryan argued that the tribe’s dispute is with the United States government – not with the private property owners who have since occupied the land. But he said the Miami cannot sue the federal government because of its sovereign immunity and federal laws regarding Indian claims.
It also said courts have ruled that if a tribe is barred from suing the United States over such lands, it cannot seek damages from the people who bought the land from the government.
State attorneys also contend the federal court has no jurisdiction to award the property in question to the tribe because doing so would encroach upon Illinois’ sovereign authority to govern, protect and tax the territory.
Tribal Land Claim Meets Resistance in Illinois
By William Claiborne, Washington Post Staff Writer
February 13, 2001
PAXTON, Ill. — A century and a half ago, U.S. Army troops herded the Miami Indians of the upper Midwest at gunpoint onto canal barges and deported them to Kansas, leaving Illinois — a state with an Algonquian name meaning “tribe of superior men” — without a single Native American tribe.
Now the Algonquian-speaking Miamis, who eventually were moved to a reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, are in federal court claiming 2.6 million acres of their ancestral home. The lawsuit contends the U.S. government violated treaties made with the tribe in 1795 and 1805 by selling the Illinois land to white settlers during the western expansion.
If successful, the lawsuit could lead to the eviction of thousands of private landowners from property the Indians estimate is now worth $30 billion and which, in some cases, has been owned by the same white families for generations. If the state intervenes to seek a dismissal of the case, as it has asked the court’s permission to do, the tribe could seek title to state land containing the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, tribal leaders contend.
As in similar Indian property claims that have been growing in number across the country, the historic roles of white men and Indians have been reversed. White landowners are complaining that they are the victims of a ruthless land grab by greedy Indians backed by a complicit federal government.
But like many of the other land claims, the battle here appears to have less to do with recovering huge tracts of ancestral homelands than about leveraging a settlement for a small plot of land and state approval for building a casino in a lucrative market.
In Connecticut, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, California, Alabama and elsewhere, tribes have sued for land or purchased it and then asked the federal government to convert it to Indian trust land so they can negotiate a compact with the state to build a casino.
With nearly a third of the 554 federally recognized tribes running some sort of gambling operation — and making $10 billion a year in the process — Indians have become major contributors to state and national political campaigns and have tipped the balance of power in many of their disputes over gaining casino rights.
While Miami tribal leaders have been vague about their intentions in central and southern Illinois, Gov. George Ryan (R) has said they have offered privately to settle for 5,000 acres and a compact under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to build a casino. Ryan has said he will not settle, and the state, which is not named as a defendant in the tribe’s lawsuit, is seeking to intervene to have the case dismissed. A trial is scheduled for June in Benton, Ill.
In the meantime, many of the 4,700 residents of this 150-year-old farming community of ornate Victorian homes and leafy neighborhoods say they are fearful that a gaudy new Indian casino will go up on the western edge of Paxton alongside Interstate 57. They say an injustice is about to be committed on them that will equal those inflicted on American Indians throughout the 19th century.
“Sure, there were lots of injustices done to the Indians and to a lot of other people in history,” said Jim Ehman, 53, who grows corn and soybeans on 750 acres outside Paxton. “My dad was first generation from northern Germany and in the Dark Ages the Vikings came and made galley slaves out of those people. But we can’t fix all of the atrocities of past generations.”
Rich Porter, an ice cream business owner who leads a group called “Say No-Stop the Casino,” said he doesn’t believe in the “corruption of blood theory” that holds current generations responsible for the deeds of their ancestors.
In any case, Porter said he doubts any injustices were committed against the Miami tribe. He said that while the United States may have given the Miamis the disputed land in the 1805 Treaty of Grouseland, the tribe abandoned the land and it was subsequently ceded to the government by the Potawatomi.
He was referring to the settlement of the Miami tribe at the southern end of Lake Michigan until Potawatomi and Kickapoo tribal encroachment drove them southeast to the Miami River in Ohio.
“Why settle a case with someone you don’t owe a dime to?” asked Porter. “The question isn’t whether harm was done to the Indians. The question is, how far does political correctness go?”
The Miami contend that for centuries the tribe hunted, fished, foraged and farmed on land that now comprises Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. Porter said the real issue in the dispute is the constitutionally protected tribal sovereignty that he said will give the Miami tribe’s casino immunity from state laws and taxes.
“We’re not racists. We’re looking for equal rights for all, and creating new separate little Indian nations with their own rights and own sovereignty isn’t the equal rights that [Abraham] Lincoln fought for,” said Porter’s wife, Donae.
The question of sovereign immunity has been raised by Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), who has introduced legislation that would subject tribes to certain state laws, such as the statute of limitations, in bringing land claims and therefore restrict the Indians’ sovereignty.
Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Ill.) has drafted a similar bill that would curtail the power of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to grant tribes land and approve casinos.
However, tribal leaders say any efforts to weaken tribal sovereignty are doomed because of constitutional protections of Native American tribes’ special status as separate nations within the United States that deal with the federal government and not the states.
Tim Yow, one of 15 property owners who were symbolically named in the lawsuit — one for each county in dispute — said the sovereignty issue inherent in the land claim already has clouded the title to his house in the event he tries to sell it. But Yow said he doesn’t want the state to settle with the Indians “just to get my neck out of the noose.”
“As soon as you concede on this, then they have their reservation and they’re not under any of our laws. Then they can do anything they want,” Yaw said. “I do feel sorry for everything that happened to the Indians, but to the victor goes the spoils. What do we do, give Texas back to the Mexicans?”
That kind of talk strikes George Tiger, spokesman for the Miamis, as condescending and unwarranted considering that the tribe has made it clear that forcing white landowners off 2.6 million acres “would not happen” and that it wants to reach a negotiated settlement.
Tiger would not discuss any casino plans, saying they had never been formally proposed by the tribe and were only brought up by state officials to inflame feelings on the land claim issue. “It would be hard to consider any kind of economic development until the property is in our hands and we have done feasibility studies on how best to develop it economically,” he said.
However, a Rochester, N.Y., developer who is helping the Golden Hill Paugussetts in Connecticut and other tribes build casinos, confirmed that he has paid most of the Miami tribe’s legal fees and would like to build a casino on the disputed land.
“If there’s a land settlement, we’ll be involved with the tribe in developing that property, whether it be a casino, a truck stop or whatever,” Thomas C. Wilmot Sr., chairman of Wilmorite Inc., said in a telephone interview. Wilmot said his firm had lawyers, historians and genealogists working on the land claim, but that with all of the controversy over the casino issue “it’s impossible to say where this is going.”
Wilmot said the state appeared to have “pulled back from [settlement] talks, so this seems headed to trial.”
A state attorney involved in the case, who asked that he not be identified, said the state has held discussions with the Miami Indians since 1991 and had rejected settlement proposals “because we don’t believe they have legal merit.” He said loss of state sovereignty was the issue that defeated such proposals.
Indian Tribes Pressing Land Claims
By John Kelly, Associated Press Writer
February 10, 2001
LUDLOW, Ill. (AP) – The Miami Indians hunted and fished this vast expanse of farm fields and former prairie in the Wabash River valley until white settlers pressed them west in the 19th century. Their descendants, now living on a reservation in Oklahoma, want their homelands back.
But people like John Stevenson, a farmer who toiled for decades to make his own home here in what is now called Ford County see it differently.
So the tribe sued Stevenson and 14 other private property owners, claiming the land on which they live and farm is part of 2.6 million acres of eastern Illinois that the Miami people were promised forever in treaties signed almost 200 years ago.
“The roles have been reversed,” said George Tiger, a tribal spokesman who expresses sympathy for the current land owners. “The Miami people were in the same situation in the 19th century. So, yes, we can relate.”
But this battle, like a spate of claims across the United States, appears to be more about getting approval for a land-based casino than about recovering long-lost homeland.
Tribal leaders now play down any interest in gambling. But their chief has said he might settle the federal lawsuit for a gaming license, and has been working in Illinois with a developer who consults with several tribes seeking to build casinos around the country.
Gov. George Ryan contends that tribal leaders have offered to settle their claims for 5,000 acres and the go-ahead for a casino. Ryan, who has presided over the expansion of riverboat gambling in Illinois, says the state won’t settle. The state isn’t named as a defendant, but is trying to intervene to get the lawsuit dismissed.
Opponents say the Miami are among a growing number of American Indian tribes using the threat of long legal tussles in attempts to force politicians to settle – for cash, for land and sometimes for the right to build new casinos.
“They held hostage thousands of innocent property owners in the misguided belief that property owners would besiege elected officials to surrender and give the Indians whatever they wanted,” said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has battled casino-related claims by the Golden Hill Paugussetts.
In Connecticut and New York, more than a dozen tribes have sued for land or bought it and then asked the federal government to recognize it as Indian ground so they could build casinos. In Kansas, the Wyandotte Tribe wants two acres next to City Hall in downtown Kansas City deemed a reservation so it can open a casino.
In California, Wisconsin, Michigan and Alabama, variations of such claims for land, federal recognition or both are ongoing with tribes seeking to build casinos.
Experts said tribal claims are big business, attracting wealthy investors who pay legal and research bills in exchange for a share of the $10 billion-a-year Indian casino business. In 2000, 195 tribes ran 309 gaming operations in 28 states, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.
One such investor, Thomas C. Wilmot Sr. of Rochester, N.Y., said he is paying for the Miami claim in Illinois and the Paugussetts’ effort in Connecticut.
Wilmot, chairman of shopping mall developer Wilmorite Inc., told The Associated Press he is building a new company on investing in Indian claims that could yield lucrative casino contracts.
His job as consultant also includes lobbying Congress and federal bureaucrats who might make critical decisions about his tribes’ claims. Federal records show Wilmot has also become an avid campaign donor.
“We think they’ve got valid claims. We’re trying to get people aware that this isn’t some kind of joke – this is a serious matter,” Wilmot said.
Concerns that such claims could become epidemic prompted Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (news – bio – voting record), R-Ill., to propose a bill to clear up a discrepancy in the law created by a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court (news – web sites) decision allowing tribes to sue based on centuries-old land claims.
Barring a settlement, the Illinois case goes to trial this summer. But the impact already is felt by residents, some of whom report difficulty selling property or getting title insurance because of doubts about who the courts will say really owns this land.
The territory in question begins about 125 miles south of Chicago and stretches across 15 counties. It includes small towns and cities, some of the state’s richest corn and soybean fields and the University of Illinois.
“The strange thing about this is people who live in the cities, or aren’t named in this thing, think they are exempt,” said Stevenson, who bought his 99 acres in 1979 and has farmed it every year since. “They think they don’t have anything to worry about, but they do.”
The Miami say they chose the 15 properties randomly, saying that if a judge rules the land really belongs to the Miami, it would bolster their argument that the entire 2.6 million acres is theirs.
When Chief Leonard filed the lawsuit in June, he said he did so reluctantly after years of failed negotiations with the state, and said he might settle for a gambling compact. But his public statements changed after a backlash of negative reaction.
Tribal officials now deny gambling is the motivation. But Wilmot’s company was shopping for land in Ford County before the lawsuit was even filed. According to county records and local officials, consultants said the tribe was seeking a site for a hotel, golf course and casino a short drive from Chicago.
The Miami say Illinois politicians manufactured the casino issue knowing it would generate political support for their refusal to negotiate.
“The tribe is willing to sit down and negotiate a settlement that does not involve gaming,” said Tom Osterholt, the tribe’s St. Louis lawyer. “Why won’t they sit down and negotiate? Why do they continue to spend public tax dollars to fight?”
State of Illinois Seeks to Help Landowners Fight Tribal Suit
By The New York Times
November 27, 2000
CHICAGO, Nov. 26 — The Illinois attorney general, Jim Ryan, and state legislators are stepping forward to defend 15 landowners against the Miami tribe of Oklahoma in a lawsuit in which the tribe lays claim to 2.6 million acres of land in 15 counties.
In a battle being fought on the Great Plains of Illinois, the small tribe of 2,400 members is claiming legal rights to land it was granted in a treaty signed almost 200 years ago. The land in dispute encompasses private farms and homes, two state universities, state parks and prisons.
The tribe’s lawsuit contends that under the 1805 Treaty of Grouseland, the Miami were granted the Wabash River Watershed land. The area includes all land touched by the river and its tributaries, taking in all of Indiana and areas of Illinois and Ohio. Over the years, the Miami gave up their lands in Indiana and Ohio, but they say they have never ceded their Illinois land.
“The land is ours and now we are acting on it,” said George Tiger, a tribe spokesman. “The dispute between the tribe and the state reaches back almost eight years and they have never paid attention to us.”
Mr. Tiger added: “We have always been willing to sit down at the table with them, but they have never taken us seriously. I think now they are realizing that this claim is credible.”
The tribe says the 15 landowners were chosen at random to represent the owners of the 2.6 million acres in the 15 counties. Ultimately, the tribe says, it seeks return of all the land, but chose the 15 landowners to begin to press its claim.
The state was not named in the suit. Attorney General Ryan filed a motion in August with the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois to intervene in the lawsuit.
But Judge J. Phil Gilbert denied the request and asked the state to present valid reasons for its involvement in the case.
“There are so many facets involved in this case since it involves state parks, prisons and schools, so we have to involve ourselves in this and make sure this is stopped,” said Scott Mulford, a spokesman for Mr. Ryan. “We are confident that we will be let into the case and that we will be successful in getting the case dismissed.”
The state contends that it should be involved in the case since it attacks the interests of the United States and the state of Illinois, not the individual landowners.
Illinois lawmakers, meanwhile, are proposing a bill that would create a legal defense fund to pay the legal fees of the 15 landowners. The bill was passed in the Senate this month and will be considered in the House when it reconvenes on Tuesday.
Rex Walden is one of the landowners. Mr. Walden, a 98-year-old Urbana resident, has farmed his 80- acre plot for 75 years, and his son, Francis, recently took over the job of planting and harvesting the corn, bean and oat crop. The land has been farmed by three generations of Waldens. Mr. Walden’s four children say they will fight for the land.
“My father is worried and he doesn’t understand why they picked him out of so many others,” said Pauline Eaton, Mr. Walden’s daughter. “I think they thought he was old and would just give up, but they picked the wrong guy to mess with, because we are all behind him.”
The Miami own about 200 acres in Oklahoma, but they have no reservation. They use trust land in Oklahoma to operate a high-stakes bingo hall and an off-track betting facility. If the Miami are successful, they have the option of putting the land into a federal trust, granting them the ability to run a tax-free casino.
Some tribe opponents think the Miami are using the treaty only to negotiate operation of a land-based casino, a move strongly opposed by Gov. George Ryan of Illinois. But Mr. Tiger says that is not their plan.
“Historically the land belongs to us, and we want to pursue some type of economic development with it,” Mr. Tiger said. “This doesn’t mean casinos. The only people that have mentioned that are the government, not us. Economic development can take many forms, from cultural centers to hotels. We also can’t just move in and start a casino. We would have to work with Illinois before we started any type of gaming facility.”
In the past 30 years, tribes across the country have researched treaties and hired lawyers to win back land. In 1998, the Oneida tribe of the Iroquois Nation filed suit against 20,000 New York landowners. Last September, a federal judge ruled that the Oneida tribe could sue only the state and local governments, not the citizens in central New York State.
Fitzgerald Bill Aids Illinois Families Named in Indian Lawsuit
Office of Senator Peter G. Fitzgerald
Washington, July 25, 2000
U.S. Senator Peter G. Fitzgerald (R-Illinois) Monday introduced legislation to give certain Illinois families and landowners seriously threatened by an Indian tribe’s lawsuit better legal tools to defend their property.
The Miami Indian tribe, which once owned land in eastern Illinois but currently resides in Oklahoma, has filed a lawsuit seeking to recover 2.6 million acres spanning 15 east-central Illinois counties. Unless the dispute is resolved quickly, Fitzgerald said, the landowners targeted in the lawsuit — one family in each of the 15 counties — could face a lengthy and expensive court battle to defend their homes, towns, and businesses.
“Many of the families named in the lawsuit have lived in east-central Illinois, farmed the land, and built family businesses there for generations,” Fitzgerald said. “They bought their land in good faith, and they should not have to endure a costly court fight to keep their homes.”
Fitzgerald explained that, although numerous state laws exist to protect landowners against the tribe’s claims, current federal law blocks the families from using the state laws to defend their rights to the land. The Miami filed a legal claim, only recently, to recover the land that was sold to others more than 150 years ago. Nevertheless, the statute of limitations and other laws blocking frivolous prosecution of outdated and burdensome claims, for example, do not apply, according to recent court decisions. The legislation Fitzgerald proposed Monday, if approved, would grant the Illinois families the flexibility to use the same defenses against the tribe’s lawsuit that they would be able to use against any other party.
Fitzgerald decided to propose the measure after discussing the situation with concerned citizens during a string of east-central Illinois town meetings earlier this month. Fitzgerald spoke personally with one of the defendants and her husband at a July 7 town meeting in Edgar County.
“Citizens are granted certain legal protections when they are sued by a business associate, a relative, the government, or practically anyone else. Why shouldn’t these protections apply when a family is sued by a tribe?” Fitzgerald asked.
“The families have no role in what is essentially a dispute between the Miami and the government. Nevertheless, some of the families could be forced to sell assets or mortgage their homes to pay legal fees, just because federal law denies them adequate protection in this case,” Fitzgerald continued. “This bill does not limit the rights of tribes or anyone else to seek justice in U.S. courts. It simply forces them to play by the same rules and meet the same legal standards as everyone else.”
Fitzgerald said it is not right for the Miami to use innocent families to gain leverage in its struggle to win a gambling license from the state, and called on tribe leaders to drop the lawsuit and pursue a more reasonable means of negotiation with state lawmakers. According to recent news reports, the Miami have admitted that they are using the land-claim suit to pressure Illinois officials to grant the tribe a license to build a casino in east- central Illinois.
“Illinois families should not be bargaining chips in a political poker game with the state of Illinois,” said Fitzgerald.
The Senator said a long, drawn out legal battle between the Miami tribe and the Illinois families could depress property values and stifle economic growth in the east-central region of the state. Because ownership of the land is in dispute, the families may not be able to obtain title insurance and, as a result, may have difficulty selling their property if they choose to do so.
“These families and all residents of the 15 counties in east-central Illinois are very frightened of losing their homes. We need to act soon,” he concluded.
The Miami suit seeks to recover land in Champaign, Clark, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Effingham, Ford, Iroquois, Jasper, Livingston, Moultrie, Shelby, and Vermillion Counties.
Tribe Stakes Claim to Illinois Land Miami Indians say 1805 Treaty Violated, Seek Huge Swath of Land
By Flynn McRoberts, Tribune Staff Writer
June 14, 2000
MIAMI, Okla. — Miami Indians once ranged across much of the Great Lakes region before soldiers evicted them from their ancestral lands at gunpoint, eventually pushing them onto this patch of northeastern Oklahoma.
But with a recent federal lawsuit, tribal leaders hope to reclaim a wide swath of territory that once belonged to the Miami nearly two centuries ago: 2.6 million acres of what is now rich Illinois farmland.
If successful, the lawsuit theoretically could toss residents off much of east central Illinois. More likely, the tribe would simply use a much smaller portion to build a land-based casino–something federal law allows Native American tribes to do in states where they own land and casino gambling is legal.
Such an outcome would be a boon for the Miami, whose modest tribal nation in Oklahoma includes a day-care center under construction, a shirt factory fashioned from a converted garage, and a bingo hall and horseracing betting parlor called The Stables.
“We’re looking forward to the glory days,” said Chief Floyd Leonard, the former school administrator and longtime elected leader of the Miami’s 2,250 members.
It would be a startling turnaround for Illinois as well. The removal of Native Americans was so complete in the Prairie State that it is now without a single square inch of Indian reservation.
But the Miami are asking the courts to help the tribe reclaim land that Thomas Jefferson’s administration granted it in a 195-year-old treaty–a vast parcel starting north of Champaign and running south to Effingham.
The Miami still have significant legal hurdles to clear before they could claim victory. But they have precedent to help make their case: In recent years several tribes in upstate New York and elsewhere have won striking victories on old land claims, partly relying on a 1985 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed treaties signed in the country’s frontier days.
The emerging legal battle has raised issues that cut to the heart of the American experience, from correcting historical injustices to protecting the bedrock right of private property. The dispute also has boosted the hopes of a small but savvy tribe, stirred trepidation among the lawsuit’s defendants, and dredged up old stereotypes from those who now control the land.
“If this works out, what happens?” asked Urbana farmer Francis Walden. His 98-year-old father, Rex, is named in the suit as a trespasser on Miami treaty land that has been in the Walden family for over 70 years. “They just might move you on a reservation, dad.”
With a 16-gauge, double-barreled shotgun propped behind the recliner in his living room, Rex Walden shot back: “If they come for this land, they better bring something bigger than a bow and arrow.”
This is “not frivolous,” said Bob Douglas, a Crawford County attorney whose housekeeper, Evelyn Bliss, happens to be named in the suit. To his understanding, Douglas said, the Miami were never compensated for the land at stake. “They didn’t get the loot,” he said.
Federal judges appear willing to change that, Douglas noted: “It seems like there’s been a shift in the courts in recent years in favor of the Indians.”
The suit was news to Walden and the two dozen other defendants listed in the Miami suit. They were shocked to discover they’d been selected as representatives of the hundreds of thousands of state residents who have been “trespassing on Miami Wabash Watershed Tribal Lands within Illinois,” according to the suit.
The Miami lived at various times in other parts of Illinois, but not on the 2.6 million acres the tribe now contends it owns. That claim stems from a land swap the tribe made with the federal government in the 1805 Treaty of Grouseland.
Under that pact with Jefferson’s administration, the tribe ceded ancestral lands farther east in exchange for a vast chunk of largely untouched prairie in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
In subsequent treaties, Miami Nation tribes gave up most of the new land, but not the east central Illinois portion. “This land that’s at issue was never transferred from the tribe to the U.S.,” said Larry Leventhal, a prominent Indian rights attorney who is representing the tribe. “It remains Miami land.”
For all of Illinois’ Native American history, commemorated with Indian names from the village of Algonquin to Shawneetown, the state has no reservation land. Like so many other tribes, the Miami were pushed westward before being removed to territory north of Texas–a place called the “Great American Wasteland” by early French explorers.
In recent years, the Miami have sought to reclaim their lost lands. After long court fights, the tribe last year won rulings to place a casino on land in Miami County, Kansas (where the Miami were forcibly moved in 1846 before being pushed to Oklahoma in the run-up to the Civil War). But a U.S. District Court judge in Kansas blocked federal plans to license the casino–a decision the tribe has appealed.
In 1996, they turned their attention to Illinois and began talking to the administration of then-Gov. Jim Edgar, a native of Coles County, one of the 15 counties included in the claim. Those negotiations went nowhere, as have those with current Gov. George Ryan, leading to the suit.
“Essentially, we couldn’t give them what they wanted,” said Ryan’s press secretary, Dave Urbanek. “What they wanted us to do was tell these landholders–`Give up your land to become [a reservation] so they can put a casino on it.’ ”
The tribe doesn’t hide its interest in a casino. But as George Tiger, the Miami Nation’s spokesman, said, “This has gone beyond a casino matter. It’s about the sovereignty of the tribe. We have one of the original contracts with America, and it wasn’t fulfilled.”
One way to do so would be to grant the tribe some land in Illinois that it could use for a land-based casino. Though state law prohibits such facilities, Miami lawyers contend that Ryan could approve such a deal because federal Indian gaming laws supersede state law.
But Ryan apparently feels no compunction to add the Miami to the list of those who have gotten favorable treatment for gaming. That list includes Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens, who lobbied hard for state permission to get a new casino built in his northwest suburb. It also includes Arlington International Racecourse owner Dick Duchossois, whose track will get a piece of the Rosemont casino profits if the facility survives a pending court challenge and is built.
One of the lobbyists hired by the tribe is Ryan friend Tony Leone, who also represents investors backing the Rosemont plan.
At least some local residents don’t see why the state shouldn’t accommodate the Miami along with other casino operators. “If there can be a riverboat in Peoria, there can certainly be a land-based casino here without hurting anyone,” said Karen Fletcher, who recently bought a farmhouse in Champaign County.
So far, though, the tribe has failed to win the support of the federal government, which is backing the Oneida tribe in its efforts to reclaim land and collect compensation for property unlawfully sold to the State of New York long ago.
Fights between New York officials and several tribes have dragged on for years–multiplying court costs and leaving some property owners unable to get title insurance due to the uncertainty. Private attorneys in east central Illinois worry that shaky title insurance issues could cost some Illinois farmers their bank loans.
In the Illinois case, the state is not named as a defendant. Dan Curry, spokesman for Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, said the state hasn’t decided whether to file a brief on behalf of the landowners or possibly become a party in the case. “We’re still talking to the governor’s office about those options,” Curry said.
In their filing, the Miami ask the court to grant them immediate possession of the Illinois land and to eject the defendants unless the landowners are licensed by the tribe. But Chief Leonard, a gentle 74-year-old retiree who once visited Illinois’ southern tip as an insurance claims adjuster, says he doesn’t want to create hardship for state residents.
“My tribe does not wish to put innocent landowners through pain and suffering such an action will bring,” he stated in a letter sent April 24 to Gov. Ryan. “But it appears I have no choice. This action could be eliminated if the state would negotiate a fair settlement.”
News of the lawsuit has produced both fear and wisecracks throughout the counties cited in the claim. Former Vermilion County Board Chairman Max Call, whose Georgetown, Ill., brick ranch house is listed in the suit, said, “If they make me president and CEO of their new casino, I might consider it. But I’d like to make sure the casino is up and running.”
Joking aside, Call is opposed to actually giving the tribe a casino. “I personally don’t think it’s worthy of a compromise,” Call said of the Miami claim. “We have a lot of people in this country that were treated wrong. … You can’t go back over centuries and centuries and make it right.”
But the tribe doesn’t view it as reparations so much as simply honoring a long-ignored treaty. Of course, a casino in Illinois wouldn’t hurt the finances of the Miami, for whom gaming has been a crucial source of revenue since the Stables gambling hall opened in 1998.
Like many tribes, the Miami received smaller compensation from the Indian Claims Commission, which ran from 1946 until the early 1970s. But a new chapter in reparations was opened in 1985 when a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Oneida tribe in ruling against New York. The court majority agreed that New York officials had unlawfully cut a deal with the Oneidas without the required federal approval.
Attorneys for the Miami note, however, that their case does not involve such an illegal deal. Their treaty with the federal government, they argue, remains valid.
Still, the Miami’s chances in Illinois may be impeded by the sheer complexity of the case. The Oneidas triumphed by suing the State of New York.
“In this case, it’s going to be a lot harder because they don’t have a governmental defendant, a single defendant to bring into court and say, `This is what’s happened,”‘ said Jake Page, co-author of “Wild Justice,” a 1995 book on the Indian Claims Commission. “It sounds like all hell will break loose in court, and they’ll be able to hold this thing up for decades.”
Indeed, Rex Walden, for one, cuts a rather relaxed figure in his OshKosh overalls. Sitting in the living room of his white, clapboard farmhouse the other day, he said with a sparkle in his eyes: “I won’t go to stacking my stuff up yet.”
Tribal Remains Stuck in Museum Limbo
By Virginia Groark, Tribune Staff Writer
April 30, 2000
On the third floor of the Field Museum, in labeled drawers, lie the bones of nearly 2,000 Native Americans.
In some cases the remains are intact, a set of bones that may have been unearthed by an archeologist or donated by a collector. In other cases there are just remnants. A jaw. A skull.
A decade after a federal law gave tribes the right to reclaim human remains and sacred artifacts from museums and federal agencies, only a few dozen have been claimed from the Chicago museum. More than 1,900 are still locked in the room, where, out of respect, access is so restricted that the museum’s curator of anthropology hasn’t been inside in more than a year.
Nationwide, the situation is not much different. Less than 10 percent of the human remains believed to be in the custody of federal agencies, museums and universities have been returned to tribes. At the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, less than 5 percent of the human remains have been repatriated.
“I thought all the human remains would be gone,” said Jonathan Haas, MacArthur curator of anthropology at the Field Museum.
There are a variety of reasons why they aren’t. An oversight committee still hasn’t established regulations regarding the disposition of remains that cannot be traced to a particular tribe. Controversies have erupted over the repatriation of some items. Limited funding and lengthy backlogs at the National Park Service also have caused delays.
But there is another reason, one not anticipated when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, was drafted. The law has created complex cultural issues for tribes, like how to rebury human remains if no such ceremony exists.
And it has some tribes worried that reclaiming human remains and sacred items could bring bad luck if they are not properly handled. Some believe it already has.
“We were told by our elders that is why we have a high suicide rate with our youth and a high alcoholism rate and a high dropout rate,” Terry Gray, NAGPRA coordinator for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said of the unburied remains. “The tribe was cast with bad luck because of all the spiritual unrest that is walking the earth.”
Signed into law in 1990, NAGPRA helped raise awareness about such beliefs. It established criminal punishments for trafficking in human remains and established rules about the excavation of them on federal and tribal lands. And it gave tribes the right to reclaim remains and sacred objects, among other things, from federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funds.
In doing so, it reached into collections that some museums began building more than a century ago for research and display.
Sometimes they were bought from anthropologists like Franz Boas who sold remains, including the bones of a Cayuga chief, to the Field Museum. In other cases they ended up in boxes after they were unearthed by construction projects. Grave-robbing and a 19th Century directive by the federal government to collect skulls for research contributed to museums’ inventories.
By 1990 the Congressional Budget Office estimated that some 200,000 human remains were housed in federal agencies or in institutions that receive federal money, a disturbing fact for many Native Americans.
“It’s upsetting to know that they have got our people sitting on shelves and in drawers,” said Dorothy Davids, a tribal elder in the Mohican Nation Stockbridge Munsee Band in Wisconsin. “How would you like your own grandmother’s skeleton sitting in a museum?”
Sensibilities began to change in the mid-1980s, when some Northern Cheyenne tribal officials realized that 18,000 human remains lay in the Smithsonian Institution. The leaders were so upset that they started a political movement that ultimately led to the passage of NAGPRA in 1990.
In the years since, only three Field Museum artifacts have been given back to the tribes—a Sun Dance wheel, a medicine basket mortar and a shaman’s robe, according to Haas.
Of an estimated 2,000 Native American human remains that were in the museum’s possession, 58 have been repatriated, he said.
“The tribes have been notified that the remains are here; they are just not requesting that they be returned,” Haas said.
One problem has been deciding what to do with remains not affiliated with a modern tribe.
A review committee, including Native Americans and museum officials, is developing regulations to handle such cases. Until they are complete, institutions such as the Illinois State Museum, where the majority of its 5,000 remains are not traceable to a modern tribe, are holding on to the remains.
At the Field Museum, an estimated 800 remains are unidentified or unaffiliated with existing tribes, according to Haas. But more than 1,100 are identifiable, and they remain in drawers for a variety of reasons.
The Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma has known for more than a year that the skull of a female tribal member killed in 1875 is at the Field Museum, but the tribe will not retrieve it until it finishes working on cases at other museums, said Francis Morris, Pawnee repatriation coordinator. Morris hopes to collect all the remains in one van trip across the country and take them to a crypt in Nebraska, the tribe’s original homeland, for a mass burial.
One unappealing alternative, Morris said, is to bury them a few at a time at the tribe’s Oklahoma reservation, where it was forced to relocate.
“We don’t like to do that because those people didn’t live there,” Morris said.
The Navajo Nation in Arizona has not repatriated human remains because of a tribal belief that dealing with the dead is a principal source of illness and ill fortune.
“There are a whole range of taboo behavior involved with the dead, and violating any of these can cause the most serious consequences,” said Alan Downer, director of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department. “It’s the most dangerous thing you can deal with for a Navajo.”
Like other tribes, the Navajo don’t have a reburial ceremony, which has created another stumbling block. It is a concept so foreign to the Cheyenne in Oklahoma they don’t have a word for it in their language, according to Gordon Yellowman, a Cheyenne Sun Dance priest and cultural heritage consultant.
Consequently tribes have improvised or consulted with others before reburying remains. But even that can prove challenging.
Davids, the Mohican Nation Stockbridge Munsee Band tribal elder, recalled a reburial in upstate New York where an Oklahoma Native American was asked to consult on the ceremony.
“He looked at us and said, ‘We don’t have any [ceremony] because we didn’t expect our ancestors to be dug up.’ ”
Even when tribes have a reburial ceremony, questions arise about when it is appropriate to use. Sometimes the remains were unearthed from the graves, Yellowman said. Others were snatched off battlefields and never given a proper burial.
“We have to really develop a plan and we have to really be cautious as to how we do this because there’s a big difference in burials,” he said. “You have to educate yourself. Is this a burial or a reburial?”
Instead of remains, the Navajo have concentrated on sacred and ceremonial objects, including two medicine bundles at the Field Museum that are used in the Nightway Ceremony, a nine-night curing ritual, Downer said. After several years of discussions, the tribe and museum have failed to reach an agreement.
Field officials said they bought the bundles and are therefore the rightful owners, Downer said. The Navajos contend that it was against their cultural practices to sell the bundles, so the museum’s purchase is moot.
The Field Museum has agreed to repatriate the bundles under a compromise claim, but the Navajo believe “that would require us to accept the principle that the Field Museum has the right of ownership and we can’t do that,” Downer said.
The Pawnees, however, have asked the Field Museum to keep their sacred bundles until they settle an internal dispute about their fate, Morris said.
The bundles, which contain items such as arrows and peace pipes, were used in a variety of ceremonies in the 1800s and early 1900s. But the people who used them died without passing on the knowledge, Morris said.
“No one in the tribe can do anything with the bundles so some of the people want them back and some of them say leave them where they are,” Morris said. “Some people in the tribe believe if we brought those back it would be bad luck for the tribe. Others say maybe that’s why we are in such a critical state now.”
Disputes between tribes also have caused delays.
The Oneida Nation in Wisconsin has twice contested repatriation claims filed by the New York Oneida Nation.
In a case involving the Field Museum, the New York tribe wanted to repatriate an 18th Century wampum belt that was made in New York to celebrate the reunification of the Iroquois Confederacy after the Revolutionary War.
The Wisconsin Oneidas filed a counterclaim, noting that the Oneida chief who was keeper of the belt took it to Wisconsin when part of the tribe relocated there, said Carol Cornelius, area manager for the Wisconsin tribe’s Cultural Heritage Department. The Field Museum agreed to keep the belt while the tribes resolve the situation.
Despite the delays, most agree that the law has empowered tribes and given them access to and knowledge of items that were taken long ago.
“One law is not going to solve 500 years of history,” said David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “But at least it has all the parties at the same table talking together.”