Turning things around
Garrick Jackson, right, a
member of the Klamath Tribal Council, helps
a young member of the Klamath Tribes make a
bow at the Klamath Culture Camp near the
headwaters of the Williamson River last
summer. The Tribes have held the camp every
summer for the past 24 years.
leaders work to address social problems, regain
By DYLAN DARLING June
When the federal government terminated the Klamath
Tribe, it ended the flow of monthly payments that
had been the sole source of income for many of its
Gone, too, was the government's help with health,
education and economic development.
The consequences of the U.S. Congress's termination
of the Klamath Tribe, which was passed in 1954 and
went into effect in 1961, were poverty, confusion
and division among former tribal members.
"It created a chain of events no one expected," said
Allen Foreman, current chairman of the Klamath
Friction developed between the three categories of
former tribal members - withdrawing, remaining and
And no matter what category members of the Tribe
fell in or what percentage of American Indian blood
flowed in their veins, they were no longer
considered Indian in the eyes of the federal
government, and thus also by many other tribal
Young tribal members in the
Williamson River last summer during the
Klamath Culture Camp. The two-week long camp
activities include language classes,
cultural games, making drums and obsidian
arrowheads and singing.
Members of the Tribe who
tried to enter American Indian rodeos, basketball
tournaments and other competitions and gatherings
were turned down because they were no longer
"The loss of the land, and to have people tell you
are not Indian any more - it didn't help your
self-esteem," said Gerald Skelton, cultural director
for the Klamath Tribes.
The one-time infusion of money to members of the
Tribe exacerbated social problems, mainly
alcoholism. Many died of alcoholism or were killed
in alcohol-related accidents.
Rick Steber, an Oregon
author who grew up in Chiloquin, said he was driving
with his son around the old reservation land decades
after termination. As he drove, he pointed out
places where friends, acquaintances and others he
had known had lost their lives in car wrecks.
"It was almost always alcohol to blame," Steber
If you build a business, you
are going to buy a piece of land. Former
tribal Chairman Chuck Kimbol
The mortality rate of tribal
members, already high before termination, shot up
after termination. "Alcohol and fast cars just don't
mix," Foreman said.
Skelton was born after termination, but says it
damaged his family.
"I personally blame
termination for the loss of my aunts," he said.
Over a quarter-century, five of Skelton's aunts died
before their 40th birthdays, with causes ranging
from car accidents to drinking to murder.
sold that land. Former U.S. Rep. Bob Smith
Many such tragedies marked
the Tribe after termination. Skelton said his
grandfather also died of alcoholism, made worse by
the living conditions after termination.
In 1964, the annual death rate among members of the
Tribe was 14 per 1,000, with two-thirds of the
deaths linked to alcohol, violence or both,
according to Patrick Haynal, whose doctoral work at
the University of Oregon focused on the Klamath
Tribe. The national annual death rate at the time
was 9.4 per 1,000.
Fortunes began to change for the Klamath Tribe in
the 1970s. Led by Chuck Kimbol, head of the
resurrected tribal government, members of the Tribe
started the political fight for restoration of the
Klamath Tribe, and its reservation.
The effort for a revival wasn't new though. Almost
as soon as the Klamath Tribe was abolished in 1954,
its former members started talking about how to get
back their land and identity.
Progress came in 1974 when a federal judge ruled
that tribal members had the right to hunt, fish and
gather materials from federal land that formerly lay
within the Tribe's reservation boundary.
In 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-398 to
restore federal recognition of the Klamath Tribes.
President Ronald Reagan sign the measure on Aug. 27,
federal government restored the Klamath Tribe as a
sovereign entity. In the early 1990s the tribal
government adopted the plural name "Klamath Tribes"
to reflect the three ethnic groups represented in
the treaty of 1864 - Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin.
At the turn of the 21st century, however, the
Tribes's goal of regaining their reservation had not
been realized. Their quest for land reverberates
today in the Klamath Basin's water struggle.
Understanding the status of the Tribes today
requires an understanding of how relations between
Indians and the United States have changed in the
last half century.
After trying to cut paternal ties from tribes and
integrate American Indians into society as a whole
during the termination era in the 1950s, the federal
government did an about-face in the 1970s. Instead
of prompting American Indians to blend into society,
the government encouraged tribal members to direct
their energy into the tribe and work toward economic
The movement toward self-determination went all the
way to the top of the American political structure.
In a 1970 speech before Congress, President Richard
"This policy of termination is wrong ... because
termination is morally and legally unacceptable,
because it produces bad results ... I am asking the
Congress to pass a new concurrent resolution which
would expressly renounce, repudiate and repeal the
The Klamath Tribes were given a role model in
restoration when the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin
was restored in 1974. The Klamath Tribes and the
Menominees were the largest tribes terminated in
1954, and the Menominees won back tribal status
through political activism.
Decades after their termination, members of the
Menominee tribe joined together to form a new tribal
organization called the Determination of Rights and
Unity for Menominee Shareholders, or DRUMS. With a
strong political voice, the group is considered by
scholars to have been instrumental in the enactment
of the Menominee Restoration Act on Dec. 22, 1973;
the restoration of the tribe; and re-establishment
of much of its former reservation.
Congress put an official end to the termination era
with the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975. The
act set a new policy: The federal government would
help tribes find their own means of support without
cutting the bonds between the two governments.
Capitalizing on the shift in the political
landscape, the members of the Klamath Tribes went to
court to regain rights, and tribal sovereignty. They
downplayed land acquisition so as not to lose
support from politicians for their effort.
"Ours was very political, and trying to include any
part of land at that time might have hung up our
process," said Chuck Kimbol, who led tribal members
first unofficially and then as chairman of their
For 14 years after the termination checks were
passed out by the federal government, from 1961 to
1975, there were no formal tribal government
meetings. Their government was gone. But there had
been informal gatherings for years, with Kimbol
emerging as the leader.
In 1973, Kimbol and other informal tribal leaders
went to U.S. District Court in Portland to argue
that although their tribal status was terminated in
1954, their hunting and fishing rights spelled out
in the treaty of 1864 were not.
They won in 1974, and treaty rights were restored to
all members of the Tribes whose names were on the
final roll of 1954. Those rights were extended to
their descendants in 1976.
The state of Oregon appealed the case, the U.S.
Supreme Court upheld the decision in 1979.
After the initial ruling, a Klamath tribal
government was convened to administer the treaty
rights, and the first General Council, or meeting of
the Tribes general membership, was held in in 1975.
An election for a new executive committee was held
soon after, and Kimbol was elected chairman.
In a separate court case concerning water rights
started in the 1970s, a judge declared the Tribes
have rights dating from "time immemorial," or from
the beginning. The ruling makes their claim to water
superior to all others in the Basin.
The ruling, however, did not specify how much water
was needed to satisfy the Tribe's claim. The state
of Oregon's adjudication of water rights -
determining who gets how much under what
circumstances - remains unresolved. The priority
date, though, gives the Tribes a trump card they
could use in their current bid for land.
But as the Klamath Tribe sought restoration of its
tribal status, it didn't push for land.
U.S. Rep. Bob Smith, a Republican who served much of
the 1980s and '90s, worked to get the tribes
restored. He said he wanted to make sure tribal
members had adequate health care. From the time of
termination to the mid-1980s, the Tribes suffered
from the death of many children and their life spans
were about half the national average.
With restoration achieved, the Klamath Tribes saw
federal money flowing into their coffers to be used
for health, education, administration and other
Smith, though, drew the line at restoring a
"They sold that land," he said in a February 2004
interview with the Herald and News.
In all, the federal government had paid withdrawing
and remaining members of the Tribes about $209
million for the land in a series of payments to
various groups starting in 1961 and ending in 1980.
Kimbol, then-chairman of the Klamath Tribe, said
Smith was good to work with, but firm on the land
"He was all right, as long as we didn't mention
land," Kimbol said.
Still, land was the Tribes's quiet ambition.
"If you build a business," Kimbol said, "you are
going to buy a piece of land."
A restored reservation emerged as the centerpiece of
a self-sufficiency plan the Tribes unveiled in 2000.
The Tribes were required to develop the plan under
the restoration law passed in 1986.
"The Tribes have expended time, energy, and money in
the development of this economic self sufficiency
plan and are prepared to expend much more in
carrying it out," tribal officials said in the
"But first we must regain all federally owned former
reservation lands. The land is the key not only for
the Tribes's economic survival, but also for the
mental, physical, and spiritual health for all
members of the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin Band of
Snake Indians. Without the return of the land we are
saying that the mistake of termination was
Talks between the Tribes and the U.S. Department of
the Interior started in earnest in 2002, but they
have yet to produce an agreement, and no meetings
have occurred in recent months.
The Tribes have publicly talked about plans to
regain 690,000 acres of timberland that is now part
of the Fremont-Winema National Forests. Their
leaders have also talked privately about raising the
request to 730,000, adding the Klamath Marsh
National Wildlife Refuge near the headwaters of the
The idea of a restored reservation for the Klamath
Tribes hasn't set well with many around the Klamath
Basin, especially those who live near, play in or
work on the federal land that the Tribes want for a
reservation. The notion has ignited fiery debate and
motivated protesters to pick up picket signs and
rally outside of meetings believed to house
negotiations concerning a land return.