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‘Open the land’: The Shawnee aim for a return to Ohio

One tribe is bidding to go all the way home to the Midwest, some two centuries later

LEWISTOWN, Ohio — Attempts to right a wrong exacted on the Shawnee Tribe almost 200 years ago are running into headwinds and government inertia in Ohio as the Native American nation seeks to reclaim its lost homeland.

There’s scant trace of the tribe’s rich history in rural western Ohio. A little patch of land off State Route 235 near Lewistown was the final redoubt of the tribe there. The last Shawnee left in the 1830s, and treaties made with them about land ownership were broken.

Indian Lake High School, with its Native American mural outside, might be the closest thing to homage that the area pays to its past. South of the school, farmland fans out in all directions, some of it marshy bottomland from the often overflowing Great Miami River. 

But now this land could see a Native American nation officially return to Ohio for the first time, with the Shawnee reclaiming a tiny slice of their lost territory. Some 50 acres on the east side of Route 235 was recently purchased by the Eastern Band of the Shawnee and they are trying to get the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to recognize the parcel as restricted Indian Country.

“Our situation is that land was taken … We signed a treaty for what was then our reservation, and we were to come here to Indian territory,” said Chief Glenna Walker, who presides over the Eastern Shawnee, from the tribal headquarters in Oklahoma. “The government took additional land rather than just the reservation, land that belonged to [Nancy Stewart], a private tribal member.”

Unless the BIA designates the land restricted Indian Country, preferred development projects are stalled.

“We would love to be able to open the land for economic development like a casino. But getting the government to recognize our position and what happened is red tape upon red tape,” Walker said.

‘Getting the government to recognize our position and what happened is red tape upon red tape.’

Glenna Walker

chief, Eastern Shawnee Tribe

The tribal members’ contention is that the land has always been theirs. In 1831 the Shawnee near Lewistown signed a treaty with the government to cede their Ohio reservation and move to Oklahoma. But 168 acres adjacent to the reservation were owned by Stewart, the daughter of the storied Shawnee chief Blue Jacket. Stewart stayed behind and passed away in 1840, outliving her childless heirs. Per the treaty, the land was supposed to revert to the tribe, but the government simply took the land, which the Shawnee are trying to get back today.

None of the tribe’s claims to the land would have seen the light of day had it not been for the sleuthing of a local attorney, Jim Calim, 78. The tribe first contacted him in 2002 to investigate whether there might be any land in the area that was wrongfully wrested from the Shawnee.

After a lot of searching, he found some dusty deeds in an old courthouse book that hadn’t been opened in 150 years. The deeds and accompanying paperwork prove the tribe’s position.

“I found the best claim any tribe could ask for. It was blatant theft, in spite of simple deeds in the courthouse. That’s like the federal government selling your house in spite of your deed,” Calim said.

Despite the Shawnee’s believing they already legally owned the land, they bought 50 of the disputed 168 acres that came on the market. It is that 50 acres they are trying to have recognized.

“It was faster to buy it than go through Congress,” said Ray Williams, a partner in the Ohio Reservation Development Corp., which the tribe has hired to promote the project. “It was a miracle [Calim] ever discovered this.” 

The BIA does not necessarily agree about the status of the Eastern Shawnee land. “It is the eastern Oklahoma region’s understanding that the Eastern Shawnee Tribe owns about 50 acres in Ohio, but the property is not held in trust for the tribe, nor do we have a pending trust application at eastern Oklahoma or at the Miami agency.  The tribe does have trust property in eastern Oklahoma already,” said Nedra Darling, a representative for the BIA.

The lack of a pending application doesn’t mean that the BIA is unaware of the situation. “They say there has not been a formal application, but we have met with officials in Washington, and every time we talk with them, they want trust, trust, trust, but if we filed for the land to go into trust, it would then be regulated by the 1988 Indian Gaming Act, and that stipulates that the land would have had to have been in trust before the act to be eligible for casino gaming,” Walker said.  

There are two ways to acquire restricted status: have the land held in trust by the government or prove historical ownership, which is what the tribe is trying to do.

“The land is theirs. It has been theirs since time immemorial,” said Ken Tankersley, a professor at the University of Cincinnati who has studied and written books about the Shawnee.

Meanwhile, the Shawnee have plans for the land if the BIA recognizes their claim.

“We’d like to see it become a destination resort, which would help make the Indian Lake region an attraction again, a go-to place for central and southwest Ohio,” said Williams.

‘We have people who have been on government assistance for three and four generations. I want to know how and if this will create jobs for our area.’

Bill Coyer

president, Indian Lake Chamber of Commerce

Part of getting BIA approval for the land is drumming up local support for the project, something that Bill Coyer, the president of the Indian Lake Chamber of Commerce, wasn’t quite ready to do without having more questions answered. He and a contingent of other local leaders were planning a fact-finding trip to the reservation in February to learn more.

“We have people who have been on government assistance for three and four generations. I want to know how and if this will create jobs for our area,” he said.

But others are more enthusiastic. Chad Doll, a councilman in neighboring Wapakoneta, said, “The project has been presented to me a couple of times, and I’m excited about the possible economic benefits our community might get from travelers who come through our community, which is about 14 miles away.”

For the Eastern Shawnee, this would be a symbolic return to their roots — as well as a potentially lucrative business opportunity.

“When we were moved from Ohio, we got down to only 63 people in our entire tribe, which included only five adult males. That was almost total genocide,” Walker said. 

She is pleased with the tribe’s rebirth, now numbering some 3,200 members. They don’t have a formal reservation, but the Eastern Shawnee operate a tribal complex with a learning center for children and a wellness complex. The tribe operates three casinos and a three-branch bank in southwestern Missouri called Peoples’ Bank. She said over 50 percent of business profits go back to tribal members in various programs, such as care for those over age 62, assistance for those who are economically struggling and tuition payments of up to $4,500 a semester for college students.

There’s a sculpture outside one of the Shawnee’s casinos that reminds Walker of her tribe’s persecuted past.

“This sculpture is of a young female standing on a rock, looking forward. And coming out of a crack in the rock below her is a tree that is going growing upwards. The tree is going to survive. It’s symbolic. We have survived every pressure and oppression, and we have survived because of our perseverance. Like that tree, we are growing and surviving. We long for the day when we don’t need any assistance from the BIA,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Shawnee will continue to press their case.

Gregg Ruppert is a retired school administrator and teacher from Wapakoneta. He has been trying to drum up local support for the tribe and is not happy with the government’s handling of the situation. “The Eastern Shawnee deserve better treatment in the development of this project,” he said.

Linda Beck and Lanny Durnell are completely surrounded by land now owned by the Eastern Shawnee. The tribe has sued them for their 5 acres but dropped the suit, and all sides are now trying to settle. Despite the apparent animosity, Durnell said he’s not against the tribe.

“I always felt sorry for the Indians, and I still do. The government stole their land,” he said.

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