Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation sees action on Illinois casino plan

A view of the ancestral Shab-eh-nay Reservation in Illinois. Photo from Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation

An off-reservation casino that the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas has been pursuing for more than a decade is finally moving forward on the federal level.

In one of his final actions as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, former assistant secretary Kevin Washburn started the environmental review process for the tribe's proposed Class II gaming facility in DeKalb County in Illinois. Notice of the decision will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.

"The purpose of the proposed action is to acquire land in trust that was historically reserved for Chief Shabeh-nay and his Band of Potawatomis by treaty, and to facilitate economic development so that the tribal government can better provide housing, health care, education, cultural programs, and other services to its members," the notice -- which was signed by Washburn on December 21, 2015 -- reads.

The land-into-trust application covers about 129 acres within the historic Shab-eh-nay Reservation. As the BIA pointed out, the land was reserved for Chief Shab-eh-nay and his band by treaty in 1829.

The tribe contends the reservation has never been extinguished by Congress and a top former Interior Department official once described the tribe's claim as "credible".

But the tribe is going through the land-into-trust process and the environmental impact statement marks the official beginning of that journey, which could take years to complete. A public meeting will be held on January 26 in Malta and written comments can be submitted to the BIA through February 22.

If the BIA approves the application, the Prairie Band wouldn't be the first tribe with newly acquired lands in another state. The Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma won approval in 2012 for a 124-acre parcel that is located within its historic reservation in neighboring Kansas. The Quapaws are now planning to use that land to expand the footprint of their Downstream Casino Resort.

But the Prairie Band situation could set the stage for a huge precedent. The tribe's present-day reservation and the site in Illinois are separated by 500 miles and getting there from tribal headquarters in Mayetta, Kansas, requires going through Missouri or Iowa.

Still, the tribe has long maintained its connection to the historic reservation and was finally able to acquire the 129 acres for a total of $8.8 million in 2006. One parcel consists of a house and the second --- where the casino will be located -- consists of farmland.

Forthcoming Federal Register Notice:
Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s Proposed Trust Acquisition and Gaming Facility Project, DeKalb County, Illinois (To Be Published January 6, 2016)

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