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Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation

Joseph “Zeke” Rupnik, the chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, signs paperwork to secure sovereignty over portions of the Tribal Nation’s homelands. Reset spoke with Chairman Rupnik about the efforts leading up to the historic moment.

Illinois now home to its first federally recognized Tribal Nation

The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation regained sovereignty over portions of its homelands this month, making Illinois home to its first federally recognized Tribal Nation.

But this moment has been long in the making, as generations of Prairie Band members have fought for their land back.

175 years ago, the U.S. government illegally sold nearly 1,300 acres of land from under Chief Shab-eh-nay, according to the Prairie Band.

In the past two decades, the Prairie Band has purchased about a tenth of that land back. This month, the U.S. Department of the Interior placed those 130 acres into a trust, formally confirming the tribe’s ability to govern portions of its homelands.

Chairman Joseph "Zeke" Rupnik signed the paperwork. He is the fourth-generation great grandson of Chief Shab-eh-nay – and said the moment felt surreal.

“Ever since I was a little boy, my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles, have always talked about knowing what's in the treaties, what we still have, and what we gave up,” Rupnik said. “Being able to get that land back into trust – under our jurisdiction, under our control – is a huge win not only for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation but for Indian Country overall.”

The Prairie Band’s efforts to regain sovereignty over the entire Shab-eh-nay Reservation are ongoing.

U.S. House Representatives have introduced federal legislation to provide the Prairie Band with financial compensation for being denied the use of its lands. The Tribal Nation could then use those funds to buy up to 1,151 acres of land “within or near the reservation,” according to the bill.

Illinois lawmakers have also proposed legislation that would transfer the Shabbona Lake State Park – which spans much of the original reservation lands – to the Prairie Band.

Reset spoke with Chairman Rupnik about the effort leading up to this historic move, along with those plans for the future.

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