Indigenous Illinois: The History of American Indian Tribes in and Around Champaign County
Updated: Jul 5, 2019
By Jason Peterson
In 1874, the campus newspaper at the University of Illinois changed its name from The Student to The Illini. This was the first recorded use of the name “Illini” on campus. The earliest documented use of “Illini” in athletics is in the 1907 Illio yearbook, describing the football team.
Despite the name’s American Indian origins, as well as the contentious debate over the Fighting Illini symbol, many Champaign County residents may not know much about the indigenous people of this area or their story. However, American Indians do have a story here. And that story isn’t over yet.
Although the land between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains was inhabited and controlled by various American Indian tribes, it was claimed by three successive countries during the 17th and 18th centuries. First, the French claimed it as a part of their empire when they arrived in the late 1600s. Then the French transferred it to Great Britain in 1763 after they lost the French and Indian War. Finally, the British relinquished it to the newly formed United States of America in 1783 at the conclusion of the American Revolution.
Each of these countries had significant impacts on the American Indians of east-central Illinois.
There are no signs that any American Indian permanent settlements or villages ever existed in what is now Champaign County. The American Indians probably saw no more use in the area’s marshy prairies than the early white settlers did. However, there is plenty of evidence pointing to their presence in the county. Indigenous tribes lived in the surrounding area, and it is likely that they hunted game in Champaign County, setting up seasonal camps in the forested areas surrounding the prairies.
In the 17th century, when French explorers arrived in central Illinois, the land was mostly occupied by a group of tribes including the Peoria, Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, and more. The French referred to the confederation as the Illinois or Illiniwek, French versions of the Ottawa name for the group. Because the French were small in number in this area, they posed little threat to the resident tribes and maintained good relationships with them.
However, the British settlers in the East disturbed the Illinois’ way of life before any of them even arrived in the region. Eastern tribes that were disrupted or displaced by British settlement moved west. The tribes that arrived in east-central Illinois fought with the Illiniwek over land and resources and brought diseases like smallpox. Starting around the mid-17th century, the Illinois’ greatest foe was the Iroquois Confederacy, who badly diminished their population.
By the mid 18th century the Illinois were mostly occupied with fighting the Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi tribes. During this period, most of the Illinois were driven out of the territory. By the time white settlers arrived from the East, the land once occupied by the Illinois Confederation was now largely controlled by the Kickapoo.
Due to a series of military defeats at the hands of Ottawa war-chief Pontiac and numerous tribes, Great Britain outlawed British settlement west of the
Appalachians until further treaties were negotiated. Because of this, the tribes in east-central Illinois didn’t experience too many problems from white settlers from that direction.
That wouldn’t last long though. After the United States ousted the British during the Revolutionary War, newly American settlers began to stream west. In short, the settlers’ encroachment on tribal lands led to violent clashes. Outmatched, the Kickapoo and other tribes eventually signed a series of treaties that by 1819 gave all of their lands over to the Americans, and they left east-central Illinois. Remaining American Indians in the area--Kickapoo or otherwise--were forcibly removed after the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
These treaties opened up east-central Illinois to settlement, and by 1822 Champaign County had its first white settler. Once drained, the soil in this region would become some of the most productive ground to grow corn and soybeans on in the world. From that point on, this lucrative land was firmly in control of the United States government.
However, the story took a surprising turn in 2000 when leaders from the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma filed a federal lawsuit to reclaim 2.6 million acres of land in Illinois, including land in Champaign County. Rather than suing the federal government or the state of Illinois, the tribal leaders filed against 15 landowners, targeting one plot of land in each of the 15 counties included in the 2.6 million acres.
The tribe wasn’t demanding reparations with the lawsuit, but rather argued that the land is rightfully theirs due to a long-ignored treaty. Prior to their removal, the Miami were located throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. With the 1805 Treaty of Grouseland, the federal government granted a large tract of land covering parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio to the Miami in exchange for lands they owned further east. The Miami would later cede all of that land back to the United States in various treaties, except the 2.6 million acres of east-central Illinois land in question in the lawsuit.
The Miami argued that the treaty between the federal government and Kickapoo that gave the United States east-central Illinois is invalid. The Treaty of Grouseland says that “no part of the lands guaranteed to the Miami Tribe by treaty could be transferred without the express consent of the Miami Tribe.”
Before filing the lawsuit, the Maimi initiated discussions with then-Governor of Illinois Jim Edgar in 1996 and later with his successor George Ryan. However, negotiations were fruitless. Although they proceeded with the lawsuit for all 2.6 million acres, Miami leader George Tiger said they were interested in a negotiated settlement, likely for cash or a smaller plot of unsettled land. Ryan claimed that tribe’s goal was to build and operate a land-based casino on the newly acquired land.
In the end, the state of Illinois was not interested in a settlement. The attorney general filed a motion to dismiss the suit on the grounds that it called into question the state’s sovereignty. Shortly after, the Miami withdrew their lawsuit.
Despite the withdrawal, the Miami say they won’t stop fighting for their land. There have been no reported attempts to reclaim this land in the intervening years. However, the tribe waited 195 years to make a move last time. Who knows when the next one might be.
And the story goes on.
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