Unlike many states in the Midwest, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, Illinois doesn’t have any federally recognized tribal lands. Yet all around the state, in the names of cities, rivers, streets and sports teams, there are reminders that we are living on land where Native Americans once farmed, traded and made their home.
By the time Europeans first explored the region in 1673, Native Americans had long been settled in villages all around the area.
So why aren’t there any federal Indian reservations in Illinois? (The term federal Indian reservation is used by the U.S. Department of the Interior.)
The answer requires a look back at the region’s history from the late 1700s through the 1830s — a period marked by armed conflicts, numerous treaty negotiations often made under pressure and through coercive tactics, attempts by Native American leaders to reclaim their lands and a series of policies enacted by a U.S. government determined to push out Native peoples.
With the help of John Low, associate professor at The Ohio State University and citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians; Joseph Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation; Patty Loew, professor at Medill and director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University and citizen of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe; and historian Ann Durkin Keating, we’ve put together a timeline of key events (click here to open the timeline in a new window):
After the treaties
After settling first on a reservation in Iowa, the Potawatomi were later forced to move again. Many of their descendants now live as the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas and the Citizen Band Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma.
Another group, the Forest County Potawatomi, have continued living in Wisconsin. They’re one of 11 federally recognized Indian nations and tribal communities in Wisconsin.
And thanks to a provision negotiated in the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi remains in southwest Michigan. That group sued Chicago in 1914, claiming ownership of the lakefront. The tribe argued that it never signed away this territory, which was created when landfill extended the city’s shoreline farther east. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the tribe’s argument in a 1917 ruling.
The U.S. government sold the property in DeKalb County that had been set aside as Chief Shab-eh-nay’s reservation, claiming he’d abandoned it. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation says this land was stolen. U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, introduced a bill in November 2021 , that would recognize the site as a reservation. If it becomes law, the measure would also provide monetary compensation to the tribe for that land, and recognition of tribal government authority.
John N. Low’s book Imprints: The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the City of Chicago
Ann Durkin Keating’s book Rising Up From Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago
Patty Loew’s book Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal
Kerry A. Trask’s book Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America
The American Indian Center of Chicago, the country’s first urban Indian center, was found in 1953.
The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston
The Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University
Explore 374 U.S. treaties with Indian tribes — and maps showing the lands involved in each treaty — at the Indigenous Digital Archive. The site includes a map showing all of the land ceded by the Potawatomi in various treaties with the U.S. government.
See an online dictionary of the Potawatomi language, also known as Bodwéwadmimwen, created by the Citizen Band Potawatomi Nation — and an app for learning the language.
Robert Loerzel is a freelance journalist and the author of Alchemy of Bones: Chicago’s Luetgert Murder Case of 1897. Follow him at @robertloerzel.
Thanks to Nate Steinfeld for submitting the question that inspired this story.