A tribe vanishes
Proverbial stroke of
pen terminates the Klamath Indian Tribe
A pine snag frames the
Williamson River Valley in the heart of the
former Klamath Indian Reservation. Tribal
leaders today say the members of the Tribe
were not adequately informed about the issue
when they were asked to vote on liquidation
of the reservation in 1958.
of five parts.
By Dylan Darling, Herald and
News June 20, 2005
It was called Public Law
587, and was enacted on Aug. 13, 1954, with the
signature of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The measure ended the federal supervision of the
Klamath Tribe, which had been governed by the U.S.
Bureau of Indian Affairs since its leaders signed a
treaty with the United States in 1864.
It also opened the door to the federal government
abolishing the 1.2-million-acre Klamath Indian
Reservation in central Klamath and Lake counties.
Even after the law was signed, termination wasn't
immediate. As the government prepared to implement
the law, it set a termination date of Aug. 13, 1958,
for the Klamath Tribe. But the process was more
complicated than expected, pushing back the actual
termination date to 1961.
To guide the process, a three-man panel of
management specialists - Thomas B. Watters of
Klamath Falls, William T. Phillips of Salem and
Eugene G. Favell of Lakeview - was appointed by
Interior Secretary Douglas McKay. The specialists
were paid $1,000 per month.
The specialists commissioned a report by Stanford
University researchers to study whether the Tribe
was ready for termination. Contrary to previous
studies, it said the Tribe was not ready.
The trio also held many meetings in Klamath
County and Washington, D.C., about termination.
Their work led to many amendments to Public Law 587,
designed to lessen the impact of termination to
members of the Tribe and others in the county.
One of the panel's recommendations was to not let
all reservation lands go into commercial ownership
because it would cause a glut of lumber on the
market and depress the economy. The three
specialists recommended that the reservation land be
managed on a sustained-yield basis.
Only large operators and federal agencies could
afford the sustained-yield practice in the
relatively slow-growing ponderosa pine forests on
the reservation, so the specialists recommended that
the federal government purchase the land.
Termination became complete
on April 17, 1961. The federal government purchased
most of the Klamath Indian Reservation, converting
it to a national forest named for tribal woman Toby
Riddle, also known as Winema. She had served as a
translator between government officials and war
leader Captain Jack during the Modoc Indian War of
Congress terminated the Klamath Tribe to give its
members something they wanted, freedom from the
oversight of the federal government. But termination
also took away something that many tribal members
later said they never wanted to give up - their
Ill-prepared to vote
Arguments abound as to whether the members of the
Tribe understood what was going on. Some say they
understood what termination meant. Others say they
were confused and thought they were just selling
their timber and not their land.
Before termination, Bureau
of Indian Affairs officials and political activists
who wanted Indians to be freed from the bonds of
federal paternalism had told members of Congress
that timber wealth made the Klamath Tribe ripe for
termination. They said the Tribe could support
itself on its own timber money.
For decades, the members of
the Tribe had received "per capita" payments, or
individual shares of the proceeds from tribal timber
sales. By 1954 those per capita payments were about
$800 per year.
The timber sales were a cash cow for the Tribe.
Reservation forests had one-forth of commercial
lands in Klamath County, according to the
reservation's forest and agriculture officials
quoted in the Herald and News on May 6, 1955. The
officials said in the more than 42 years of logging
on the reservation the average cut per year was 111
million board feet for a gross return of $32.75
In 1956, two years after Congress approved
termination, the Stanford researchers found that the
Tribe wasn't ready for termination, economically or
socially, and that taking away the Tribe's land
would devastate its members.
The researchers said the reservation forest would
have to be liquidated to pay withdrawing members of
the tribes, and they said this wouldn't be in the
best interest of tribal members, the regional
economy or the nation. They said the members of the
Tribes weren't prepared for the economic and social
Despite the warnings of the Stanford report, the
federal government proceeded with termination.
When the time came to liquidate the reservation that
was in large part covered with valuable pine timber,
each tribal member was presented with two choices:
n Withdraw from the Klamath Tribe and receive a
one-time cash payout in exchange for an interest in
the reservation. Those who selected this option came
to be known as "withdrawing members."
n Remain in the Tribe, with his or her share of the
reservation managed by a yet-to-be-named
institution. Those who selected this option came to
be known as "remaining members."
The Herald and News was unable to locate a copy of
the mail-in ballots issued to tribal members. But it
did obtain a ballot issued to adults voting on the
behalf of children.
The wording on the ballots was anything but easy for
tribal members to understand, particularly because
many lacked reading skills, said Andy Ortis, a
member of the Klamath Tribe who was 16 at the time
of termination, and whose mother and grandmother
passed records on to him.
Following are the two choices on the ballot for
someone voting for a minor or incompetent adult:
"A. I elect for the member to remain in the tribe
and have his share of tribal assets placed under a
management plan substantially in the form of the
plan dated FEB - 1958, of which I have received a
summary which is satisfactory as to form and
"B. I elect for the member to withdraw from the
tribe and to have the member's share of tribal
assets converted into cash."
In an explanatory material that came with the
ballot, the appraised value of the reservation was
set at about $159 million, and each member on the
final roll of 2,133 people was entitled to an equal
share in the tribal property. Officials at the time
estimated that 70 percent of the members of the
Tribes would choose to withdraw.
The material explained the options as follows:
"If you decide to withdraw, then:
"a) Your share of the tribal property, based on its
full appraised value, will be put up for sale. If
the sale is for a price equal to the estimated
realization value, you will receive approximately
$58,650. If the sale is for a lower or higher price,
you will receive the price received from the sale.
Any payment to you will be reduced by your share of
the tribal expenses.
"b) Full payment will be made by August 13, 1960.
"If you elect to remain in the tribe, then:
"a) Your share of the tribal property will not be
sold, but will be placed in the control of a trust
company that will manage the forest lands on
sustained yield principles, according to a Tribal
"b) You may expect to receive about $1,050 each year
for the next five years and about $880 each year
There was confusion, and scholars have said many
tribal members didn't understand the consequences of
withdrawing. And because no specific trustee was
identified at the time of voting, many were leery of
the option of remaining as members.
For many, the choice came down to getting a lot of
money right away, or continuing to get regular
payments, but with a mix of uncertainty and a
continuation of control by another person. Most
opted out of the Tribe.
Of the 2,133 members of the Tribe on the final roll,
1,658 voted to withdraw and 77 elected to remain,
while 398 didn't vote in May 1958. Those who did not
vote were added to the list of remaining members,
except for Edison Chiloquin, who began a lengthy
battle to get his own parcel of land instead of
continuing to get per capita payments.
Those who withdrew from the Tribe got about $43,000.
In all, about $70 million was paid out in 1961.
The final individual payout to the withdrawing
members was less than originally expected, in part
to pay back outstanding loans and irrigation charges
owed to the federal government were also subtracted
from the final payout.
Children born to members of the Tribe, either
withdrawing or remaining, after Aug. 13, 1954,
didn't get any form of payment or stake in any
Minors on the final roll, whose parent or guardian
had voted for them, didn't get the money directly.
Individual trusts were set up and managed by
Many of the people who voted in 1958 have died.
Still surviving are those who had others decide for
them when there were minors, and the descendants of
those who voted.
One of the surviving voters is Chuck Kimbol, who
later led lawsuits to regain hunting and fishing
rights and then the push for restoration. He was 20
years old and just-married when it was time to vote.
He decided to withdraw so he could have some money
to start his new life.
But he said many of those who voted to withdraw
didn't understand what the result was going to be.
"There were so many of them who didn't realize that
the land was going with the timber," Kimbol said.
The release of the termination money in 1961 started
a flurry of spending by withdrawing members of the
"The most natural reaction is you are going to buy
things you never had," Kimbol said.
Daryl Ortis, brother of Andy Ortis and a rancher in
the Sprague River Valley, was 5 years old when it
was time to vote. His parents made his choice for
him. They decided to remain.
To explain why, Ortis' father gave him a dollar bill
after a tribal meeting.
Back then, $1 dollar had more buying power than
today. Ortis said he went to the general store and
bought bubble gum, popsicles, licorice and more. He
also saved 25 cents.
The next day, his father told him he would give him
$10 if he would give up his $1. Ortis told his
father he had already spent most of it.
"He said, 'That is what people do when they get
money, they spend it foolishly,' '' Ortis said.
His dad told him not to be enticed by the offer of
big money, when having the reservation land and the
per capita payments it provided was more valuable in
the long run.
"If you have something, cherish it," he said. "If it
feeds you and takes care of you, take care of it."
Evidence suggests few of the withdrawing members
exercised such restraint.