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McLean County Kickapoo historic marker sets a new precedent for getting history right

 Five people in business casual attire lift a shroud from covering a new historic marker.
Lauren Warnecke
Historians and county officials collaborated with the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas to develop text for a new historic marker about the 60-acre Grand Village that once stood in eastern McLean County. The marker sits beside a memorial boulder, under threat of destruction, that was relocated from farmland.

More than 50 people gathered last week at West Park near LeRoy for the unveiling of a new historic marker. McLean County officials, the Illinois Historical Society and the McLean County Museum of History coordinated to memorialize a 60-acre Kickapoo settlement that once stood near the park.

The first documented presence of Kickapoo people in central Illinois is around 1750, when they were squeezed out of Michigan and Wisconsin.

“I like to look at the Kickapoo, in some ways, as immigrants to central Illinois, just like Euro-Americans were a half a century later,” said history museum librarian Bill Kemp, in his remarks at the dedication ceremony. Other speakers included Julie Emig and Norris Porter, also from the museum, McLean County Administrator Cassy Taylor and Michael Wiant, a board member of the Illinois State Historical Society.

“It was during this time of general upheaval, resource competition, ever-shifting alliances and a threatened demographic and cultural collapse, that the Kickapoo established what came to be known at the Grand Village of the Kickapoo, not too far from where we are at this moment,” Kemp said.

Opposed to westward colonial expansion, the Kickapoo Tribe sided with the British in the War of 1812, ceding their land to the Americans in 1819. Many remained in the area until the 1830s and now populate Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico.

 A man wearing glasses, a dark t-shirt and baseball hat crosses his arms and gazes at a historic marker titled "Site of the Grand Village of the Kickapoo"
Lauren Warnecke
A visitor to West Park reads a new historic marker, unveiled at a dedication ceremony on June 22.

The new marker's text was developed in close collaboration with members of the Kansas Kickapoo Tribe. Wiant sees the project as presenting an opportunity to reflect on the marker program and reconsider previous markers that often present a white, colonial point of view favoring Manifest Destiny.

“The historical society has some rethinking to do about the events, the people, the circumstances that we highlight and how we articulate the story,” he said. “Many of the monuments don’t cast native people in a very good light. They have to do with conflict between settlement, but they don’t tell the story about the displacement of people.”

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) gave Native Americans ownership and control of native cultural artifacts discovered on federal or tribal lands.

“One of the mandates of that legislation is it’s time to talk,” Wiant said. “It’s an insistence — it’s not just a recommendation.”

The legislation also forced museums to reassess their collections. In her opening remarks, Emig, who serves as the McLean County Museum of History’s executive director, noted several acts of repatriation.

Items in the Milo Custer collection have been earmarked for the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas, including a valuable bead necklace circa 1860.

“We believe that the necklace was given to Custer when he traveled to the Kickapoo reservation in Kansas during a 1906 trip,” Emig said.

A replica is being made by the tribe to display at the museum, with the original scheduled to join the collection of the Kickapoo Tribal History Museum in Kansas.

And in 2022, McLean County Historical Society shared the deed for 1,225 acres under a nearby marker noting in the Kickapoo stockade as a symbolic gesture acknowledging colonial land grabs and the Kickapoo's forced removal from Illinois.

The new West Park marker sits beside another monument on the topic: a memorial boulder that was recently moved from nearby farmland and was due to be destroyed. A third marker notes the history of West Park. All three sit in front of a newly refurbished pavilion.

The night before the June 22 dedication ceremony, Wiant reviewed every historic marker in the state.

“I wanted to say something about the marker program broadly,” he said. “I wanted to know what we had to say about native people. I decided we had not done a very good job. Our perspective was focused on settlement and conflict. Few of the markers — the one behind us being a considerable exception — are designed to relate a clear understanding on native people.”

Wiant relayed his concerns to the director of Illinois State Historical Society, noting the rich possibility of collaboration with tribal leaders.

“I think we have opportunities here for exchange of ideas and to begin to identify locations in Illinois that deserve markers that relate the remarkable cultural history of native people,” he said.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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