A Historic Day for Native People in Illinois: Governor Signs Three Bills into Law that Honor Native Ancestry and History

New laws will allow: burial of Native remains on state land, Native history to be taught in Illinois public schools, and schools to permit students to celebrate their cultural identity during graduation ceremonies

Chicago, IL (August 4, 2023) — Illinois Governor JB Pritzker signed into law today three bills that overwhelmingly passed the state legislature with bipartisan support, bringing long overdue honor to past, present and future Native communities in Illinois.

The three newly signed laws will:

“Illinois has made tremendous strides this year in its work to repair the centuries-long injustices that started with colonizers doing everything they could to extinguish our people and the origins of this land on which the United States of America was constructed,” said Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick. “Illinois today proved that a government is capable of reflecting on its past injustices and planning for a future that respects and celebrates our interconnectedness.”

Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation was integral in the advocacy efforts for all of the new laws signed today, particularly HB 3413 which allows for the burial of Native remains on state lands. Illinois possesses the remains of thousands of Native people – some dug up by the Department of Transportation during highway construction and unceremoniously housed in desk drawers – but that’s set to change as the state is on track to return 1,100 of the 7,000 Native American remains the state currently holds.

“Native tribes have existed since before colonization, and our land and culture are the foundation of our society. Yet the remains of thousands of our ancestors have been in the hands of governments and institutions, just as our Native lands have been for centuries,” Chairman Rupnick said. “By signing this bill today Governor Pritzker is undoing a modern-day extension of colonization. This new law will bring respect to our ancestors the way they should’ve been respected centuries ago.”

Despite the progress in Illinois this year as it relates to the state’s Native origins, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation still faces the reality that its identity in Illinois remains diminished due to an overreach by the United States government.

Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation has roots in Illinois with DeKalb County being home to a Reservation that belongs to Chairman Rupnick’s great grandfather four generations removed.

However, the U.S. Government in 1849 illegally auctioned off more than 1,280 acres of Chief Shab-eh-nay’s home Reservation near the village of Shabbona in southern DeKalb County when he traveled from his family in Kansas. Illinois is the only state in the Midwest – one of just 15 states nationwide – without a federally recognized Tribe.

Legislation recently filed in the House by state Rep. Mark Walker (D-Arlington Heights) would return state-owned lands comprising the Shabbona Lake State Recreation Area to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

Although the U.S. Congress is the only governing body that has the authority to designate land titles for Native nations, the state of Illinois owns and operates a state park on a portion of Prairie Band’s 1,280 acres, they have the agency to return that to Prairie Band with legislation or through executive action.

“Although our land was illegally taken from us, we’re still here, living and contributing to life in Illinois, all while practicing our traditions and serving our country,” said Chairman Rupnick, a U.S. Army Veteran who served for 13 years. “We may not yet have our Reservation land back in the hands of our Tribe, but we have the truth and increasing acknowledgement that our cause is just.

“Thanks to Governor Pritzker, state Representatives Mark Walker (D-Arlington Heights), and Maurice West (D-Rockford), state Senator Suzy Glowiak Hilton (D-Western Springs), former state Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas, and Republicans and Democrats in the Illinois legislature, today is an important day for policy changes that put Illinois on a path to break down oppressive structures and the lingering effects of colonization that upended our Native communities.”