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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.

 Second 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 1872-73.

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 land.

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 million.

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 change.

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 content.

"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 Management Plan.

"b) You may expect to receive about $1,050 each year for the next five years and about $880 each year there after."

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.

Quick cash

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 trust.

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 attorneys.

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 Tribe.

"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.





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