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Don't dismiss tribal claims out of hand

Published July 27, 2004

It would be wise not to make too much or too little of the idea that the Klamath Tribes may file a raft of claims against the federal government. A tribal group is discussing the idea, as reported Sunday.

A claim against the government for turning Crater Lake into a national park, for example, seems far fetched. It is far fetched. But far-fetched ideas sometimes bear fruit.

Just let the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decide that the federal government owes an Indian tribe for a national park, and watch all hell break loose around here and across the nation.

You'd see front-page stories from coast to coast about the possibility that the federal government would have to give up or pay for gems like Crater Lake, Yellowstone and Yosemite. It would make for a lot of interesting news and comment until the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in once again to put the 9th back in its place.

But so far, all this is speculation. You never know what might happen in the courts. Absent a real lawsuit that cites an actual basis for a claim, there's not much to talk about.

Except this: The Klamath Tribes clearly is trying to strengthen its hand in the overall struggle over Klamath Basin resources. Foremost for the tribes is land, restoration of the reservation that was sold when the tribal organization was terminated in the 1950s.

This is the long-term objective of the tribes, and many of its members have been pursuing it almost from the moment of termination. Most of the Klamath Tribes' actions, including its positions in the water struggle, should be seen in this light. So should the idea that the Tribes are considering a gaggle of claims over Crater Lake, wildlife management and the like.

Within the Klamath Basin, there's little support for restoring a reservation. That doesn't mean that courts or an unfriendly federal government might not force one on the Basin, or that support couldn't be generated if a reservation were part of an overall deal to settle the water struggle. As things stand today, though, the tribes have little chance at a land settlement.

But time and things change. The Klamath Tribes have access to a fund of money, size unspecified, through its claims committee, and it has national backing from the likes of the Native American Rights Fund, headquartered in Denver. So long as the tribes can afford to field lawyers, it will attempt to advance the cause of tribal land. If just one claim sticks, that will change the overall position of all the players in the great Basin struggle.

This is not something that anybody in the Klamath Basin can dismiss, no matter what anybody thinks of the idea of a restored reservation or the merits of the tribal claims.

The "H&N view" represents the opinion of the newspaper's editorial board.






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