The following is an account of the termination of the Klamath Reservation from the Tribes point of view.
A brief review of the history of the dispossession of the Klamath, Modoc and the Yahooskin band of Paiute Indians through the termination of their government-to-government status and the taking of their ancestral reservation lands.
Much is made of the ideas of self-sufficiency and self-determination in Indian Country. Tribal leaders consistently prioritize those ideas as key goals for their tribes. Federal leaders proclaim these goals' virtue. State and other leaders claim to support them as important steps forward for the Indian people on whose ancestral lands the states now sit.
But what really happens when a tribe or tribes seriously attempt to accomplish economic autonomy and political viability? One tribe was actually on the verge of economic autonomy the 1950s. The price the Klamath Tribes paid for their success very nearly destroyed them.
The subjugation and the destruction of life ways and economic viability
No tribe in America has been more victimized by the vagaries of federal-Indian policies than the Klamaths of Oregon. These resourceful and productive people have been twice decimated by federal policies designed to deliberately destroy their economy and undermine their culture.
The prosperous and powerful Klamath, Modoc and the Yahooskin Band of Snake Paiute people (hereinafter "the Klamaths") once controlled 22 million acres of territory in south central Oregon and Northern California. Their lifestyles and economies provided abundantly for their needs and their cultural ways for over 14,000 years. Contact with invading Europeans, however, quickly decimated their numbers through disease and war and resulted in a treaty reserving to the tribes a diminished land base of 2.2 million acres. Once traditional rivals, the three tribes were forced to live in close proximity to one another on these drastically reduced reserved lands.
The tribes' economy and trade were wiped out and the people were forced to survive on a subsistence basis dependent almost entirely on the provisions of the reservation and the meager services of the federal government. They were, in addition, forced to engage in a continuous struggle with the United States over its relentless efforts to diminish and ultimately wipe out the Klamath homelands; a struggle further exacerbated by federal encouragement of strife among the tribes. In spite of these obstacles the Klamaths recreated their vigorous economy with timber resources and imported livestock. They soon became one of the nation's wealthiest and strongest tribes. In 1953 the Klamath people were nearly at economic par with mainstream society. Tribal individual income was 93 percent of the majority culture. The Tribe was, moreover, no burden on taxpayers. The Klamath Tribes were the only tribe in the country paying their Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative costs.
In 1957 there were only four Indians on welfare in the Klamath Basin - three on old age benefits and one on disability. The Klamath Tribes were by every measure not only no burden, but a significant contributor to the local economy. Their strength and wealth were, however, no match for determined efforts of the federal government to eradicate their culture and acquire their most valuable natural resources - a million acres of land and ponderosa pine. The stage set for the dispossession of the Klamaths in the early 1950s when the Tribe was subjected to the worst of many disastrous experiments in federal-Indian policy - termination.
"Termination" was a federal policy adopted by the United States Congress in 1953. The thrust of the policy, in its simplest terms, was to force the assimilation of Indian people into the mainstream American culture. There were, of course, a whole array of other purposes, including :
- The unilateral abrogation of all treaty and other agreements between the governments of the various tribes and the United States.
- The abolition of tribal governments.
- The eradication of reservations and all tribal holdings of lands and assets.
- The unilateral abrogation of all federal responsibilities owed to the tribes and their citizens under the treaties and other tribal-federal agreements.
- The elimination of the federal bureaucracy dedicated to the support of Indian programs and fulfillment of treaty guarantees.
- The consequent reduction of the federal budget.
In short, having gotten the benefit of the bargain from the treaties with Indian nations, the federal government no longer wished to uphold, even in the smallest degree, its side of the bargain. The termination policy was adopted by the Congress on its own motion, without the request of any tribe and over the objections of almost all tribes and Indian organizations of the day. In fact the whole movement for termination within the federal government was led by two men from the United States Congress - Sen. Watkins from Utah, and Congressman Berry from South Dakota. While the policy of termination has since been repudiated, those tribes and Indian people subjected to its horrors still suffer significant and irreparable scars from the experience. There is, moreover, a significant amount of concern throughout the Indian Country about the return, or continued existence in some other form or under some other name, of the termination policy.
The taking of the reservation - a second round of destruction for the Klamath economy
For the Klamaths, termination came by pronouncement from Sen. Watkins. The Tribe never requested it and when speaking through elected tribal official consistently opposed it. The majority of the tribal members did not want termination. A minority interest that did was represented by a tribal member who was close to Sen. Watkins, a relationship cemented by the fact that he supported the termination agenda that the senator was pursuing. But those official elected representatives who opposed it were treated with contempt by the senator. At the time termination was being considered for the Klamaths, the Tribes also had legislation pending in Congress to provide payment owed to them for the taking of treaty lands. When the elected representatives of the Tribes traveled to Washington, D.C. to seek appropriations legislation to pay the Tribes the debt owed by the United States, Sen. Watkins treated the representatives of the Tribes with great disdain, seizing on the opportunity to withhold approval of the payment until the elected leaders agreed to termination. Intimidated by their surroundings and sensitive to the need to obtain the goals they had been sent to Washington to accomplish, they nonetheless refused to support termination.
Holding the appropriations legislation hostage, Sen. Watkins forced elected officials to appear and testify at a hearing on termination - here they were subjected to Senator's extraordinary arrogance and withering disdain. Their testimony (although in opposition), and the testimony of the non-elected minority faction, were used, however, to claim that the Klamaths did not oppose termination. It was both extremely unusual and outrageous for Sen. Watkins to use the testimony of the minority faction - never subjected to any selection process by the tribal members - to determine the fate of the Tribes.
Congress established a list of criteria to determine whether a tribe was ready for termination. The Department of the Interior applied the criteria to the Klamath Tribes and reported to Congress that the Klamath Tribes did not meet the termination criteria. The Stanford Research Institute prepared a study of the termination plan and concluded that:
"[the Termination Act] is ill-conceived and cannot be enforced without doing great harm to the Indians and creating a serious social and economic problem in the Klamath area. Nor are they [the Klamath Indians] fully aware of the economic consequences of termination ...since many do not realize that to obtain their share of tribal assets they must first withdraw permanently from the tribe."
The result was that, contrary to the recommendation of the Department of the Interior and over the objection of the tribal representatives, Congress adopted termination legislation for the Klamath Tribes. There was never any vote by tribal members supporting termination; it was forced upon them.
The abrogation of the promises
Termination was, therefore, accomplished over the objections of the majority of the members and to the great detriment of the Tribes. The thrust of the policy was to abrogate and remove the bulk of the federal responsibilities guaranteed to the Tribes by treaty. These treaty guarantees had been bought and paid for with tribal cessions which surrendered over 18 million acres of prime timber and farm lands to the United States. The federal obligations promised in exchange included a whole array of services and benefits to which the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Snake Paiute people were entitled. Among those federal guarantees were delivery of a range of social services including health, education, and housing, as well as the protection of their sovereignty, and resources, including deer and fisheries.
Once terminated, the Tribes were cut off from these valuable services. There was not at the time, nor has there ever been, any compensation for the loss of these entitlements. The value of these lost services from the implementation of termination in 1961 until restoration in 1986 has been estimated to be about $148 million.
There were, in addition, federal guarantees which insulated the Tribes and its members from taxation and other economic burdens imposed by the state and local non-Indian governments. These guarantees had tremendous value - the most conservative estimate being at least $100 million over the period from 1961 to 1986 - yet were given no consideration at termination when they were discontinued.
The loss of identity and the ancestral lands
But termination took even more important assets from the Klamath people, both tangible and intangible. The intangible was the Klamaths' identity as an Indian nation among the great circle of recognized Indian tribes of America. The loss of this identity did incalculable psychological damage to the Klamath people. They were inappropriately viewed as having "sold out" their Indian heritage.
The tangible asset that was taken was the then diminished but still extensive reservation of over 860,000 acres of ponderosa pine - the reservation lands and resources that embodied the sacred homeland and source of sustenance for these proud and resourceful people. A timber resource which by itself would, over the next 30 years, produce in excess of $250 million in revenues for the United States.
It is difficult to overstate the disastrous impact or the enormous stupidity of these actions. Congress first reached the patently sham conclusion that the Klamath people were "ready" for termination because they had achieved sufficient sophistication in the arts of "civilization" that they were prepared to assimilate into the dominant culture. This conclusion was contrary to the report of the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the Klamaths did not meet Congress' criteria for termination. The federal agencies responsible for implementing termination then reached the incredible conclusion that fully one-half of the adult Klamaths were incapable of managing their own affairs without a legal guardian. Undaunted by this extraordinary inconsistency termination proceeded to the realization of its actual purposes - the dispossession of the Klamath people from their rich and prosperous homeland, and the removal of the Tribes and its members from federal recognition. The corollary but unrecognized and related inconsistency of the Klamath termination legislation was the taking of the land. Any validity to the conclusion that the Klamath people may have been prepared for release from federal supervision was dependent upon the assessment that they were one of the, if not the most, economically self-sufficient tribes in the country. But that self-sufficiency was directly related to the revenues generated primarily by tribal timber and industries. Even for those individual tribal members who enjoyed relative economic independence, it was traceable in large part to their right to the use of tribally held grazing lands.
These industries - ranching and timber - are of necessity tied to the lands that support them. It was, however, ownership of those very resources that termination legislation was designed to remove from the Tribes and its members. It was, moreover, done in a fashion that guaranteed that neither the Tribes nor any of its members would have any realistic chance of acquiring any of the lands of the soon to be former reservation.
Under the amended termination legislation the lands could only be acquired in blocks of no less than 5,000 acres. Clearly no member of the tribe could afford to purchase such a large tract. Even if people had wanted to borrow money with their shares of the liquidated estate, they had no sophistication in financial affairs. And finally, the only economic purpose for which they could have acquired the land was timbering. It would have been nearly impossible to demonstrate any real possibility of competing with the United States Forest Service as a supplier of timber in the late 1950s. As a result, all but 90,000 acres (purchased by Crown-Zellerbach) of the land was taken through condemnation by the United States to become the majority part of the Winema National Forest and a portion of the Fremont National Forest.
This was equally true of the subsequent disposition of the so-called "remaining lands" by the private trustee, which was a successor to, and appointed by, the federal government. This latter point requires some explanation. At the time of termination tribal members were separated into two groups; those who would receive their share of the tribal estate in cash from liquidation of tribal assets - the "withdrawing members" - and those who would hold an undivided interest in a share of the tribal estate to be managed by a private trustee - the "remaining members." The election to be in one group or the other was the only choice ever given to the Klamath people. But only those who had reached majority - 21 years of age - could vote. The tribal estate would be divided into two parcels: one to be sold to produce the revenues to be paid to the "withdrawing members," and another to be managed by a private trustee for the benefit of the "remaining members." There was great confusion at the time of the election. Very little useful or reliable information about the real meaning of either choice was available. There was, in addition, much misinformation. It was generally felt that taking the cash being offered now may be the only chance to ever get anything from tribal estate. Many thought that they could take the money and acquire a parcel of land. But the legislation was amended after they voted to provide that no portion smaller than 5,000 acres could be acquired - effectively excluding any individual Klamath for purchasing lands.
There was, moreover, no information about what the plan for the remaining members would be, how it would be managed, who would manage it or what role the remaining members would play in its management.
Once again the irony and inherent inconsistency for the management of the "remaining lands." Here were people declared by congressional finding to be prepared to handle their own affairs nevertheless having their assets placed under the supervision of a federally appointed trustee. The "remaining members" were to have no real say or control over their own assets nor over the actions of the trustee. Nor would the remaining members ever have any real opportunity to ultimately undertake management of the trust assets for themselves. Indeed their only opportunity for input on the adequacy of the performance of the trustee was a vote every five years on whether to retain the federally selected trustee - something they discovered only after they voted.
It is in this setting that the Klamath people were asked to vote on whether to take their share of the estate in cash, or to accept an undivided share in a trust to be managed by an unknown trustee. The wonder is not that nearly 78 percent of them chose to take cash, the wonder is that any of them opted for the trust at all. In fact very few actually voted to be part of the trust. The bulk of the trust members were those who refused to vote at all, were ineligible to vote because of age, or were otherwise determined to be incompetent to select for themselves. Under the terms of the Klamath, Termination Act those who did not vote were automatically placed with the remaining members. Although the remaining members were given no option in the selection of the initial trustee, they were given a vote every five years on whether to retain the trustee. The remaining members exercised their right on two occasions. The trustee turned out to be the United States National Bank of Oregon. On the second vote in 1971 the majority opted to remove the trustee. The trustee bank then determined that the vote was to terminate the trust, not merely the bank's role as trustee. There was no opportunity for the remaining members to clarify their vote and retain a new trustee. The bank began proceedings to liquidate the trust. Despite significant protests and one lawsuit (later voluntarily dismissed under community pressure), the liquidation of the remaining lands of the former Klamath Reservation was arranged by the bank through condemnation by the United States. Once again no member was given a chance to acquire any of their ancestral lands.
One member, Edison Chiloquin, simply refused to participate, rejecting over $273,000 in payment for his interest in the land. It ultimately required congressional legislation to secure a portion of the former reservation lands to Mr. Chiloquin in lieu of his share of the liquidated Klamath tribal estate.
The wasting of the estate
As outrageous as the imposition of termination was, as ridiculous as the liquidation of the tribal estate was, few things rival the irresponsibility of the incredible scheme for distribution of the tribal estate to the withdrawing, and later the remaining, members. There is a temptation to point to the political strife of the Klamath, Modoc and Paiute people and conclude that they were in some sort of disarray. Such a conclusion would be unwarranted and erroneous. Their government was far more stable than comparable local non-Indian governments all over the nation at the time.
This is all the more remarkable considering that these people were:
- Constituted of traditional enemies forced together on a land base representing one-tenth of their original territory.
- That they had overcome a war involving the escape from and return to the reservation of the Modoc people.
- That they had rebuilt from the ground up a viable economy.
- That they enjoyed a reasonably stable tribal government and relationship with the BIA for over three generations. It is impossible to imagine a healthy local government that does not have among its numbers at least one dissenting voice on any issue, and usually one or more vocal minority factions.
The Klamaths were no different in that regard, and certainly no worse. These were a well-integrated people, economically prosperous, politically active, culturally and spiritually vital while on their reserved homelands. They were also, for all of their success at rebuilding their reservation economy, reservation Indians. That had some very specific meanings in the 1950s. It meant, for example, that they were unaccustomed to a number of the attributes of the majority society. They lived in a setting where they paid no property taxes. They had little or no consumer debt. A significant portion of their subsistence was taken from reservation fish and game sources, to which they had exclusive access. They enjoyed an enclave secure from the destructive management practices of the Fish and Game Department of the state and the habitat destroying practices of the U.S. Forest Service. Few of them had checking accounts or engaged in any significant amount of consumer purchases for large and expensive items such as cars or large appliances. They lived primarily on the reservation in small communities insulated from most of the influences of the majority culture. They certainly had no experience with large distributions of money. They were, in addition, not subject to state income or other taxes while on the reservation. They also had a connection to their ancestral lands, the significance of which is impossible to convey here.
Suffice it to say that they were spiritually responsible for the land that was being sold out from under them. The land was a source from which they drew spiritual and cultural sustenance. They took their stewardship responsibilities seriously. They conveyed much of their cultural ways to the young through experiences on the land that reflected their relationship with the Creator. Their lives were being transformed by forces beyond their control and in ways beyond their comprehension. All of this was happening without one single study by the Congress adopting this policy, the federal agencies implementing it (nor anyone else) about the economic, social or cultural impacts involved.
It is against this backdrop that the federal government determined to distribute checks for $ 43,000 each to 1,659 Klamath individuals. This distribution that was to take place without counseling for either the Klamaths or the local community; without the provision for a reasonable transition by the Klamath people; without any safeguards against sharp dealings or unscrupulous consumer practices. And, because so many Klamaths "ready for termination" were declared to not be competent to handle their own affairs, a significant portion of the payments went into individual trust accounts managed primarily by local attorneys or bank trust officers. The bulk of the money distributed to the Klamaths which actually was delivered into their hands was expended on the usual array of consumer goods purchased by most citizens of the day; home, furniture, appliances, cars etc. These purchases were intended to accomplish at least some of the symbolic transition of the Klamath people toward the goal they had been told they must pursue - assimilation into the majority culture. What they were not told, of course, is that no amount of money could purchase a non-racist community willing to deal honorably with them in commercial and social affairs. As indicated earlier at least half of the money was delivered into trust accounts managed by local attorneys, most of them having no experience in handling such matters, and none of them having any training in cultural sensitivity. The result was a disaster.
Much of the wealth derived from the sale of the Klamath's heritage was lost to sharp dealings by merchants; unscrupulous attorneys that mishandled, embezzled or engaged in self-dealing from trust accounts of those determined to be incompetent; to poorly considered investments - sometimes by attorneys lending themselves money from the accounts; or to exorbitant fees charged by local attorneys or banks for the handling of the beneficiaries affairs - which hardly ever got more sophisticated than handing out checks to the beneficiaries - a process usually handled in the most paternalistic of ways. They were also lost to non-Indian spouses who married Klamaths, had them declared incompetent, and gained control of their assets. There were also those who simply wasted their spouses' wealth and then left. There were, in addition, mysterious deaths of Klamath people. And in some cases following the death of a Klamath member, the disinheriting of the children born before the marriage to the non-Indian spouse in favor of the surviving spouse. But much of the wealth went to another far less visible but culturally significant end.
Those born after Aug. 13, 1954 were cut off from eligibility to share in the distribution of the tribal estate. They would receive nothing while siblings a year or more older received either $43,000 or a share in the remaining members' estate. As a result many of the Klamath parents and siblings shared their distributions with those cut off by the accident of later birth. Some of the money, however, went to far more sensational purchases.
These became the fodder of the stories told in the press about huge days-long parties, multiple purchases of cars, and Indian individuals walking around with thousands of dollars in paper bags. Many of the stories were true. The fact that they were the exception did nothing to keep them from marking all of the Klamath people as wild squanderers of their own relative wealth. These behaviors are not significantly different from what any thoughtful person might have expected given a moment to reflect on what could actually happen. Any group of 2,100 people randomly selected would have engaged in much the same conduct given a check for a large amount of money with no experience in financial affairs and no counseling of any sort available to them. Recent studies of the fate of lottery winners reflect some of the same experiences. Add to that the burdens facing the Klamaths. They were being asked to deal with this at a time when their whole culture was undergoing significant upheaval. Their way of life was being completely transformed. Their economic system was being stripped away. And in all of this they were being blamed for abandoning their Indian identity in a situation where they had no choices and little hope of having others understand the complex set of circumstances that led them to the situation in which they were placed. One result was tremendous guilt along with frustration - all the more confusing because there was no basis at the time for understanding these feelings. These contributed to the desire, both overt and subliminal, to get rid of the money that symbolized their betrayal. It also led to rampant alcoholism and the attendant problems of suicide, domestic violence, loss of self-esteem and on and on.
This is but a part of the legacy of termination.
The creation of dependency
The economy of the Klamaths was destroyed. Their land was lost to the federal government for a fraction of what would prove to be its real value. The culture and social fabric of the people was seriously rent. Their government was critically undermined and all but dysfunctional. Their consistent requests for assistance in preserving a small portion of their heritage went largely unheeded. They were dispossessed from the very land-based enterprises at which they had been so successful. They were sent to participate in a society for which they had few of the skills or inclinations necessary with which to succeed; a society ill-prepared and largely unwilling to accommodate them. The single exception was those willing to marry tribal members to obtain access to their relative wealth. Few of those marriages survived the dissipation of the payments. The local community viewed them with envy and growing contempt based on the bizarre notion that the payments for their land were in some sense a windfall which was unearned and undeserved. This conclusion was based in part on the perception that the Klamaths' inability to hold on to and increase that wealth was an indication that they truly had not deserved it in the first place. The irony of the latter conclusion all the more poignant since the loss of so much of that wealth is directly traceable to dealings with much of that same community. Faced with growing demoralization, the social profile of the Klamath people reflected increasing evidence of all of the indices that have come to characterize one face of Indian America - poverty, alcoholism, high suicide rates, low educational achievement, disintegration of the family, poor housing, high dropout rates from school, disproportionate numbers in penal institutions, increased infant mortality, decreased life expectancy and more.
Data compiled for the years from 1966 through 1980 showed the following:
- 28 percent died by age 25.
- 52 percent died by age 40.
- 40 percent of all deaths were alcohol related.
- Infant mortality was two and one-half times the statewide average.
- 70 percent of the adults had less than a high-school education.
- Poverty levels were three times that of non-Indians in Klamath County - the poorest county in Oregon.
- 56 percent of those over 40 had no health insurance.
- 30 percent of those over 65 had no health insurance including no Medicare or Medicaid.
The once self-sufficient Klamath people had not realized the dream of assimilation that the federal officials and bureaucrats had crafted and forced upon them. They had, instead, had their land and resources stripped from them; been subjected to the distribution of large sums of money with which they were ill-prepared to deal; suffered the worst of consumer and other practices in having that wealth wrested from them; been offered no realistic alternatives in the process; and finally were blamed and ridiculed for the very process that had victimized them.
The enduring spirit of survival
But they didn't quit. They didn't disappear. They persisted in their quest for the reversal of termination with the restoration of the government-to-government status unilaterally taken from them in the 1950s. They worked with their own people, congressional leaders, state and local community representatives, and anyone else who would listen. They were told frequently that despite the fact that other tribes subjected to termination had been and would be restored, there would be no restoration for the Klamaths. Ironically, the reason was because they had been "paid" for their reservation. The outrageous injustice of their treatment was completely obscured by the seemingly large amount of money distributed. The huge losses of their resources and culture completely eclipsed by the processes that stripped them of their heritage. But through the leadership and vision of the Klamath people and the assistance of a few congressional leaders, the Klamath Restoration Act was adopted into law in 1986.
Restoration of the Tribes to the great circle of recognized tribes in America began the process of providing the Tribes and their citizens with the resources necessary to put their nation and their people back together. But the damage wrought over 120 years and particularly over the last 35 years cannot be cured in a single act, nor over a course of even a few years. Just as it took decades to create the problem it will take significant time for the Klamath people to heal it.
Rebuilding their lives, their government, their community, and their economy
The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has long been a partner with the Klamath people in their quest to secure the few rights left to them after termination and to regain some of the resources needed for their ability to pursue self-sufficiency. Since 1972 NARF has assisted the Tribes in securing a legal determination in the case of Kimball v. Callahan that they retained their ancestral treaty rights to hunt and fish on former reservation lands. NARF also secured in the case of United States v. Adair a determination that the Tribes have continuing water rights to support the existence of the fish and wildlife necessary to any realistic right to hunt and gather. NARF continues to support the Tribes' battle to protect and define those rights against state attempts to limit or eradicate them. In addition, NARF attorneys are working with the Tribes to define both the meaning and the methods for achieving economic self-sufficiency. This includes a plan for the return of former reservation lands held by the federal government within the boundaries of the pre-termination reservation.
Since the federal government has assumed management of the Klamaths' former lands they have so poorly managed the habitat that the deer have been reduced from 60 per square mile to less than four per square mile. Two of the fisheries which the Klamaths depended upon have been reduced so much they have been put on the endangered species list. Negotiations with the United States Forest Service have been so unproductive that the Tribes were forced to take it to court to get a declaration that the Forest Service needed to take into account the Tribes' adjudicated rights when making forest management decisions that could effect those rights. The state has historically ignored Klamath rights when setting bag limits for wildlife take.
The result is a land and related resources nearly decimated. The Klamaths seek return of these primarily for the purpose of healing the land and its resources and restoring them to some semblance of the abundance they once reflected. They also seek to restore the spiritual integrity of the land. It is the culmination of "restoration" in its full sense for the land, its related resources, and the people, both Indian and non-Indian.
The goals of the Klamath people are simple and reflective of those to which most communities aspire. The Klamath people wish to be self-sufficient. Their concept of self-sufficiency takes them back to an earlier time when they experienced no dependence on any federal, state or local non-tribal government or any other outside institution. It recalls the time both before the invading European arrived and again before the disastrous policy of termination was visited upon them. It incorporates the concept of tribal independence to provide for the social, economic, cultural, and spiritual well-being of all of its citizens.
It is the fundamental notion of tribal self-determination. The Klamaths have never and do not now wish to participate in federal welfare dependency. They want the ability and resources to provide for their own people, consistent with their cultural norms and life ways. The Tribes and their citizens seek the wherewithal to achieve these goals from the very same resources that formed the foundation of their earlier ability to provide for their well-being and development. And in that quest they seek some measure of justice for the imposition of past wrongs and inequities. In the simplest terms, the Klamath people want the chance to restore their former lands and related resources.
They want their way of life back.
A number of writers participated in writing this commentary submitted by Allen Foreman, Chairman of the Klamath Tribes.