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Karuk Tribe questions restoration of Ruffey Rancheria


EUREKA — A Northern California congressman says his bill to restore the Ruffey Rancheria in Siskiyou County 60 years after the federal government dissolved it will right a historic wrong, but the neighboring Karuk Tribe claims there are political motives behind the legislation.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa’s bill — H.R. 3535 — would reestablish the rancheria and set up a process for membership enrollment and establishing water, fishing and land rights in Siskiyou County where the rancheria was first established in 1906.

Karuk Tribe Executive Director Joshua Saxon said the individuals in Shasta County seeking to become members of the rancheria have questionable ties to the original Ruffey Rancheria members. Saxon said some of these individuals have also voiced support for delaying a plan to remove four Klamath River dams starting in 2020 — a plan which LaMalfa and Siskiyou County have openly opposed.


“This is a ploy by LaMalfa and Siskiyou County to reinvent the tribe that is a check on all the other tribes in the basin on the issues of water, fish and dam removal,” Saxon said.

Surviving Termination

Tahj Gomes is a Chico-based defense attorney and identifies himself as the tribal chairman of the Ruffey Rancheria, previously known as the Etna Band of Indians. Gomes said he cannot speak for LaMalfa’s intentions, but only his own.

“For our families, federal restoration isn’t about providing a ‘check’ on other Indian Tribes in the Klamath River Basin, and it is unfortunate that Mr. Saxon believes that our Tribe’s basic sovereign right to be a Tribe should be denied on those grounds,” Gomes emailed the Times-Standard on Friday. “To us, restoration is about being recognized as a Tribe that survived the Termination era as an intact Indian community.”

LaMalfa’s communications director Parker Williams said the congressman has known and worked with Ruffey Rancheria descendants since serving in the state Assembly. Parker said LaMalfa has had numerous meetings with the Karuk Tribe regarding this bill and has made many amendments to satisfy their concerns.

“This issue with the bill has never once been raised with Rep. LaMalfa or his office,” Williams said about Saxon’s comments. “The text of the bill provides that: ‘Nothing in this Act shall expand, reduce, or affect in any manner any hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering, or water rights of the Tribe and its members.’ Under this bill, the tribe would be afforded the same rights afforded to all federally recognized Indian tribes.”

Unanswered questions

Saxon and tribal organizations representing about 70 tribes throughout the state have also raised concerns about LaMalfa’s response to tribes’ concerns.

“We are concerned to learn that several tribal commenters in California and Oregon have raised questions about the group affiliated with H.R. 3535 that have gone unanswered,” Southern California Tribal Chairman’s Associated Robert Smith wrote.

The bill recently passed through the House Natural Resources Committee in a 19-18 vote.

North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, voted against the bill, and said that the issue is not whether Congress should restore a wrongfully terminated tribe.

“Of course we should work toward that,” Huffman said at the May 4 hearing. “But this is about whether the process is respecting the rights of the dozens of California tribes who are raising serious concerns.”

At the committee hearing, LaMalfa said the concerns raised by Huffman were “11th hour concerns,” though Huffman said he and other colleagues raised the issue nearly a month before.

“So who’s being open here and who’s being disingenuous?” LaMalfa said in response to Huffman’s concerns. “It’s a little appalling and I always look for a positive, constructive conversation on this.”

The bill is set to be heard by the House Rules Committee and is expected to be voted on this summer.

Land, water and fish

The bill as amended would also allow the Secretary of the Interior to provide land in trust for the rancheria located in Siskiyou County, but does not provide a limit on how much land; the previous version of the bill limited it to 441 acres.


The Karuk Tribe said this bypasses normal administrative processes that other tribes have to face. Saxon said the bill would also infringe on existing water and fishing rights held by other Klamath Tribes despite the legislation saying otherwise. The only protections offered in the bill for the rights of other tribes are for those in Oregon and the neighboring Quartz Valley Indian Reservation, Saxon said.

“Just because the legislation says it’s so doesn’t make it so,” Saxon said. “If you establish water rights on the Klamath River, tell me how that’s not going to affect the Klamath Basin tribes?”

Gomes describes this concern as a “red herring” and a “scare tactic.”

“The Ruffey Rancheria is not claiming to be a tribe that derives its rights from a treaty, nor does the legislation establish any new or infringe on any existing rights,” he said.

“The possibility of Federal restoration for our Tribe is a momentous occasion. It isn’t a question of politics; it is a question of social justice,” Gomes continued. “For us, this legislation is an opportunity for us to be a federally recognized Tribe once again.”

As to Klamath River dam removal, Saxon said that he would expect the rancheria, if established, to request that the removal process currently before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to start over.

The Times-Standard asked Gomes if he and the Etna Band of Indians opposes dam removal.

“The Ruffey Rancheria has not made any statement or sent any letter opposing dam removal or requesting a such a delay,” Gomes said in response.

Gomes did pen a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board in February 2017 regarding the dam removal project’s water quality permit. Gomes did not state opposition to the project in the letter, which he signed as the chairman of the Etna Band of Indians, but requested that a new environmental report be developed to give “due consideration” to Shasta Indian descendents.



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