Feb
13
2001

Tribal Land Claim Meets Resistance in Illinois; Miamis' Suit Viewed as Tactic for Casino Accord

Note: This article is critiqued in FAIR's Action Alert, Genocide, A Casino... What's the Difference?

SECTION: A SECTION; Pg. A03

Tribal Land Claim Meets Resistance in Illinois; Miamis' Suit Viewed as Tactic for Casino Accord

BYLINE: William Claiborne, Washington Post Staff Writer

DATELINE: 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.