Clarence "Boonie" Jenkins was
a child when he received a payment for his
share of the former Klamath Indian
Reservation. He says many tribal members
were ill-prepared to manage their money
Many Tribal members
traded their interest in reservation for cash
June 21, 2005 by Dylan Darling
Third of five parts.
What would you do if you
were presented with a check for quarter-million
What for many is a daydream was reality for the more
than 1,600 "withdrawing" members of the Klamath
Tribe in 1961.
Each of the members who had voted to withdraw from
the tribe and receive a cash payout for their share
of the reservation received a check for $43,124.71.
Adjusted for inflation, that would be worth more
than $276,600 today, according to the U.S. Bureau of
Labor's inflation calculator.
The checks came from the federal government, which
purchased most of the tribe's 1.2 million acres of
The money didn't last long.
"They spent it everywhere,"
said Glen Kircher, who had started a hardware store
in Chiloquin with his uncle in 1954. "I'm sure the
businessmen in Chiloquin, Klamath Falls and around
liked to see the infusion of cash."
The Sprague River flows past
stands of timber on the former Klamath
Indian Reservation. Timber harvests provided
annual revenue for tribal members.
Many of his customers paid
off debts and bought something they had always
wanted. Some purchased houses or land and others
invested in stocks or education.
"And some threw their money away - partying,"
Clarence "Boonie" Jenkins, a member of the Klamath
Tribes who graduated from Klamath Union High School
in 1961 after growing up in Chiloquin and Klamath
Falls, said he saw many members of the Tribe go
through their money fast, buying new cars, expensive
appliances and other big-ticket items.
"If you go back, the root of
the thing is these people were getting $100 per
month," Jenkins said. "If you give someone $43,000,
hell yeah, they are going to buy a new car ... The
new car dealers were in hog heaven because everyone
had two or three."
Many who had lived modest lives suddenly had the
means to buy almost anything they wanted.
Bob Mezger served as the
manager of timberlands held in trust by U.S.
Bank for remaining members of the Klamath
Tribe. Mezger said trust officials sought to
manage the lands in a way that was best for
"I know some of the Indians
here, they would wear their clothes one time, then
throw them away," Jenkins said.
Jenkins was a minor when the payments to the members
of the Tribe were made, so his money was held in
trust by an attorney, or trust officer. Even after
he turned 18, he still had to go to the attorney to
get to his money, he said.
And each time he took some
out of the trust the attorney would charge an
exorbitant fee. Jenkins used some of his money,
along with money he earned by logging, to buy two
Corvettes, a boat and room full of electric guitar
He had a sizable amount left he wanted to invest,
but his trust officer wouldn't let him take the
money out when he told him about his plans.
Then his parents came to him with some plans of
their own. They had found a bowling alley for sale
in Albany for $250,000, and needed some help with
the down payment. He said he thought it was a great
idea because they were avid bowlers and had
experience running a bowling alley. He was able to
get $20,000 for them and they turned in the down
The next day they got a bill for $208,000, Jenkins
said. His parents didn't know that along with the
alley came the business's debt. They weren't able to
cover the cost. They lost the money they had
gathered up for the down payment, including Jenkins'
"It should have worked out good for them, but it
didn't," Jenkins said.
He said many of the member of the tribes who got
termination checks simply didn't know what to do
with that amount of money. Mistakes made range from
bad business decisions to flat-out fast spending.
Tales are still told today of withdrawing members
going around with paper sacks full of money or
pockets stuffed with bills, buying new cars as if
they were toys and treating them as such, saving too
little and spending too much on alcohol, and soon
ending up broke.
Many of those tales were compiled into a novel
published in fall 2003 by Oregon writer Rick Steber.
Steber grew up in Chiloquin, the town that was once
the heart of the reservation, and was a high school
freshman in 1961. He heard the stories and witnessed
how the money was squandered.
"I saw brand new refrigerators, washers and dryers
sitting on porches of shacks that didn't have
electricity," he said.
Out in a field, he said, he saw a brand new Lincoln
Continental pulling an irrigation line. Cars were
expendable for many of the suddenly wealthy
withdrawing members of the Tribe. Instead of getting
an oil change, tune up or fixing a flat tire, some
tribal members would just get a new car.
"It was an interesting period of time for all the
wrong reasons," Steber said.
Hucksters were also selling items around Chiloquin
and the former reservation land such as aluminum
siding that made worn-down homes shine, but only
until it fell off, Steber said. And merchants in
Klamath Falls and other nearby towns were offering
"Indian prices," inflated from the regular price.
"The Indians were squandering the money, just
recklessly," Steber said. "The money went fast.
There were a lot of people, local merchants and
stuff, who were standing in line to take it."
Victims of dishonesty
Not all of the members of the Tribe spent their
money quickly or lived dangerously. But even many of
those who tried to spend their money wisely didn't
Lawyers from the Native American Rights Fund, a
non-profit Indian legal services organization based
in Boulder, Colo., charged that merchants had
exploited withdrawing members.
In December 1972, Federal Trade Commission officials
from the Seattle regional office traveled to Klamath
Falls to hold a public hearing.
The FTC concluded that members of the Tribe were
charged inflated prices for cars, homes and other
items compared to what white customers paid,
sometimes double the cost or more. Many were also
bamboozled by door-to-door salespeople who charged
ridiculous prices for products with exaggerated
One product was a vacuum that was "was the best in
the world ... it had an activated charcoal air
filter system ... and would prevent colds, cause
sound sleep, and reduce air pollution," according to
testimony at the hearing.
FTC officials also looked into the dealings of
trustees and lawyers who represented many of the
withdrawing members of the Tribe. Of the 1,658 who
opted to withdraw from the Klamath Tribe, almost
1,200 had their share held in a trust or
guardianship. Many of these 1,200 had been minors at
the time of termination.
Reports abounded of trustees and lawyers abusing
their privileges, taking money from their clients
and charging exorbitant rates. One trust officer was
reported to have charged $600 for photocopying costs
to do an audit, according to the FTC report.
"I think that we have sat back and rather expected
the business people or lawyers, the bankers, the
real estate agent to deal with us honestly because
we feel they are in reputable business in a
reputable community, supposedly, that they would
deal fairly with us, and now we know better and we
know that actually they do not deal with us honestly
and fairly and actually our money is more valuable
to them than to us ..." Annabelle Bates, a withdrawn
member of the Tribe said in testimony at the
The FTC ended up recommending consumer counseling;
coordination of federal, state and local consumer
protection organizations; and funding of the
non-profit group Organization of the Forgotten
American, which is made up of remaining and
withdrawing members of the former Klamath Tribe. The
organization was formed in 1969 to represent
interests of tribal members at a time when there was
no tribal structure. The organization is still in
The FTC also recommended a study to see if any
withdrawing members of the Tribe needed financial
help from the federal government to get by.
Meanwhile, the remaining members didn't need help
with their finances. They continued to bring in
annual checks reaped from the sale of timber still
held in trust for them.
Remaining members profit
The financial winners after termination were the 474
members of the tribe who didn't immediately cash in
their share of the reservation.
In the 1960s and '70s, while many of the withdrawing
members were spending away, the remaining members of
the Tribe were still getting per-capita payments.
Part of the reservation continued to be held in
trust, administered by U.S. National Bank of
Portland's Klamath Falls office. The bank was also
known as U.S. Bank.
The 474 ended up getting about $38,000 each from
1959 to 1974. The money came in the form of
quarterly checks that ranged from $200 to $3,000,
depending on the success of timber sales from
135,000 acres of land held in trust. The checks came
from the Klamath Management Trust, which was run by
Bob Mezger, who was the forest manager for U.S.
Bank, said the goals of the bank paralleled the
goals of the Tribe.
"There was always a focus of what was best for the
Indian owners," Mezger said.
He said the trust officials weren't out to make
money from the remaining members. Rather, they
wanted to get the most out of their investment and
manage the forest accordingly.
"There was a definite wall between the bank
department and the trust department," Mezger said.
As part of the trust, the remaining members could
call for a vote every five years to terminate it, he
said. The trust started in 1959, and in 1964 an
executive committee of remaining members called for
a vote. They voted to keep it going.
In 1969, the committee again called for a vote and
this time the result was the termination of the
trust, Mezger said. Although the trust was
terminated, the remaining members, like the
withdrawing members, had to wait several years for
their payments while the finances were put in order.
Several bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress,
including one from Oregon Sens. Mark Hatfield and
Bob Packwood that called for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture to buy the land. In 1974, President
Gerald Ford signed an appropriation of $49 million
to pay for it.
The U.S. Bank trust officials didn't think that was
a fair price. "So we instituted a suit to get a more
realistic value," Mezger said.
In 1974, the remaining members got $103,000 each as
their share of the $49 million. In today's dollars
the $103,000 shares would be worth $400,720 each,
according to the Bureau of Labor's inflation
Meanwhile, the appeal for more money went on. In
1980, after years of litigation, the court ruled in
favor of the trust, and another $81 million, or
$170,000 each, was paid out by the federal
government. In today's dollars, each share would be
After watching the experiences of the withdrawing
members, many of the remaining members invested
their money well, putting the money in trust funds,
buying land and using other secure investments.
The real financial losers in termination were the
descendants of members of the Tribe on the final
roll of 1954.
Born after the roll book was closed on Aug. 13,
1954, the descendants didn't get any payments from
the liquidation of the land, the claims that
followed or the liquidation of the trust, unless
they inherited it.
But they shared in the hardships, and as they grew
up, many held resentment for those who withdrew,
those who pushed for termination, and, most of all,
for the government that ended the reservation and
Many descendants tried to forge a life in the area
of the old reservation, where the economy was down,
employment chances were limited and social problems
abounded. Many left in search of better