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Klamaths prosperous tribe until land was taken away

Published Dec 15, 2003

By GeorgGene Wright-Nelson

Guest columnist

In response to letters from Steve Souders and Dr. Cal Hunt, I would like to comment on the actual facts that have affected the indigenous people of this land now known as Klamath County.

I am a Klamath Tribal member. I was not alive in 1954 when Congress moved to violate the 1864 treaty that was created with our Klamath, Modoc and Paiute tribal leaders. I didn't get to voice my opinion with a vote of how to receive pennies on the dollar for land worth much more than that.

The Klamath tribal leaders of the 1950s had the responsibility to try to make sense of a congressional law coming down on hundreds of tribes at that time.

For the most part, the tribal leaders were not scholarly or college-educated people with degrees from Ivy League schools. They were just people trying to do the best they could at the time.

The Klamath tribal leaders were unlike the scholars who sat in Congress in the 1950s. It was during this period the Indian Termination Act was created. It was created get control of the resources of Indian tribes throughout the United States, and to get out of the "Indian business."

The Klamath Tribes were a prime target, and some Oregon State officials and businessmen lobbied back East to get this land away from the Klamath Tribes. I do believe that one of the state's officials was also a bank president who sat on the committee working on the termination of Indian tribes. Another member was a leader in the timber industry in Oregon. So, I wonder if their influence had anything to do with the Klamath Tribes losing their ancestral homelands.

The Klamath Tribes were but one target. We had rich resources of timber, water and land, and we did have our own mill at the time of termination.

Owed government nothing

My father, Harold B. Wright, tells me we did not owe one dime to the U.S. government or its taxpayers. Our tribes did have cattle, because my grandfather, Harold P. Wright, was a stock detective and brand inspector for the tribes and he worked the cattle up on the Klamath Marsh. My father tells me how our tribes supplied beef to the federal government during war times. The Klamath members were successful people at this time.

One of the many acts of Congress that were passed to try to "civilize" the Indian people was the Allotment Act. This act made it so tribal people's reservations were divided up into farms and ranches. The Klamath Tribes were one of the most successful and richest tribal people in the United States prior to the termination of our lands. Many tribal members did have farms and ranches here. They were very successful in producing animals, hay and other grains.

One thing that needs to be known is that the Klamath Tribes prior to termination had to pay the government for its administration efforts. It didn't pay us. It received payment from a very successful tribal government. My great-great-aunt told me this. She was a tribal secretary at the time and she knew we had to pay the Bureau of Indian Affairs for its agents who were sent to oversee our people.

Throughout time, "newcomers" came into this area, and some swindled some of the Indian people out their lands. They loaned a couple hundred dollars here and there, and when the Indian people didn't pay in time, they took their land instead - a cheap way to get lands, one way for people with very little education and experience in land ownership to lose their lands.

I have heard story after story about this type of land dealing.

The decline of a self-sufficient people was started when lands were made available to be obtained by non-Indians. The act of Congress allowing for non-Indians to obtain reservation lands allowed this activity.

Also, the land that the Tulelake Irrigation District, and other settlements that southern Oregon and northern California encompass comes from former Klamath Reservation land. Our reservation existed down to Mount Shasta at one time. We had that "surveyed" away from us. We never got one red cent from that transaction. Nor did we get anything for the other lands surveyed away - those north of us going toward Bend and Oakridge, including the area now known as Crater Lake, or east of us going toward Lakeview or west of us going toward Medford. Those lands were "surveyed" away too.

The lands were surveyed by the state and federal governments, and their intentions were selling the lands to newcomers. We were left with a much smaller portion of land, until that was taken away with the termination act of Congress.

Don't blame deer loss on tribes

Our tribes have gotten a raw deal since we were "discovered" in the late 1800s. We have lost more than most of the residents of this county will ever realize.

In response to comments about the deer herds: There are historical pictures I have seen with people who are not tribal people posing with herds of deer hanging on racks, not to mention the flocks of waterfowl that were killed. Those historical pictures show what happened to the deer herds and to our birds. Because, when the 'big buck" contests and hunting seasons became popular, it was mostly non-Indians who participated. Poor animal management by the feds and the state prior to and since termination has eliminated our deer herds.

Isn't it strange that there were lots of animals and birds here until this land got settled?

The Klamath tribal people are hardly the ones to point the finger at for lost habitat and lost animal numbers because if they were, there surely wouldn't have been any animals or birds to look at originally.

I feel that the Klamath Tribes cannot do any worse, than what the federal and state governments have already done to our ancestral lands.

I have a strong personal feeling for this area. This is where my ancestors are from. My roots are thousands of years old, and I feel what has happened to our forests and our animal populations in the past several decades is a shame thanks to poor land management and over-harvesting of animals.

I do agree with one thing that Souder said. The Herald and News does need to editorialize the "real" truth about the history of this area. It is something that truly needs to be done.


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