Klamath Tribal Termination

Essay originally written in 2007. DGlewis

Klamath Tribal Termination

The last Indian lands, mainly contained within reservations, contained some of the last untouched natural resources in the United States. Many reservations contained significant stands of timber and clean water resources, as well as significant underground mineral deposits.

The problems with these natural resources being on reservations was that private companies seeking to mine or log these resources had to not only negotiate with the federal government but also with Indian Tribes. This led to costly legal and economic impediments to the exploitation of these resources. In addition, as some exploitative practices destroyed large tracts of land for generations, and sometimes forever in the case of Uranium mining, many Tribes would not agree to such contracts.

For water resources, the access rights were much more complicated. Tribes depend upon rivers, streams, and lakes for traditional cultural practices, like fishing, travel, and trade with neighboring tribes. The right to continue to fish in rivers and lakes is written into many treaties and there is an area of Indian law that has developed to deal with these issues. Many tribes continue to aggressively push the right to have a significant portion of a river or water from the river reserved for their sole use. A good example is the agreement of the Warm Spring Tribe with the Federal Government and the State of Oregon for the maintenance of in-stream-flows for the Deschutes River. This lawful and sovereign right of tribes created problems for American developers who want to create industry or new urban developments like housing tracts and who must find new sources for water. Rivers like the Colorado are now being tapped at a rate of more than 100% of their capacity, leaving little for Tribes and causing long-term conflicts and legal battles.

The historic battle for water access at the time of termination (1950s) was no less contentious. At that time, the United States was recovering from World War II and beginning to reallocate war resources back into the nation’s domestic problem areas. The Department of the Interior would shoulder a great burden at this time by defending its continued support for Indian Affairs while attempting to reallocate funds to create irrigation development projects across the West.

The termination of the Klamath Tribe is the second most researched behind Menominee. The Klamath reservation was very rich, including a large forest and great access to water resources. The timberlands were highly coveted by businessmen. The water resources, including the headwaters of the Klamath River was in many ways, more attractive. In 2001, The Klamath tribe went through a battle with farmers over the right to maintain in-stream flows for suckerfish. (more research to add to this section). The Klamath’s rights are thus; The U.S. has a trust responsibility to protect tribal trust resources, which generally requires that the U.S. must protect tribal fishing and water rights held in trust for the tribes. Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908) applying reserved rights to Indian reservations and Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963) recognizing reserved water rights for other federal lands. Final termination proceedings of the Klamath Tribes were in 1962. This is the date the last dam was constructed across the Klamath. There is a clear relationship between the right of the Tribes for water and fish resources, the termination of the tribe and the subsequent building of a set of dams, which affected salmon populations and water resources.[i] Once the Klamath tribe was terminated, they had no legal rights to challenge such development.

However, the state and federal administrators were well aware that water rights were not being addressed by termination. Oregon States Education Director Mr. Wright also points out the situation that is rarely noticed, that Klamath received more attention by administration than the other terminations in Oregon, Nowhere in Mr. Wright’s six-page letter is Grand Ronde or Siletz or the southwest Oregon tribes mentioned. Klamath had the most resources, and the state invested its time where they were likely to gain the most, in the rich timber and water resources of the Klamath Reservation.

In fact, Mr. Wright is aware that water rights were not going to be terminated. He mentions that, “Section 12 [PL587] would not disturb existing water rights of the tribe or abrogate fishing rights or privileges.”[ii] This statement on the eve of termination presents an interesting image of government plans for the tribes subject to termination. Wright was the Director of the State Department of Education for Oregon. The fact that he displays knowledge of the water issues for the Klamath means that it is highly likely that most other officials in the state involved with termination were aware of the issue as well. With this information and the fact that Oregon and California were involved in water and power plant negotiations for their common border regions, we see now that a plan was developed before termination, to exploit the water resources before the Indian people found an effective defense against this development of their traditional cultural water resources.

The following correspondence of the issue for the Klamath involves the fact that termination did not address water rights, and there is no indication BIA officials broached the issue about what would happen to the Klamath culture and their water rights after termination. The assumption was that Klamaths would be able to continue to practice their culture even though their reservation was terminated. (This was the assumption of many tribes who were terminated, while the states assumed that fishing rights had m=also been terminated, which caused the “Fish Wars”  legal cases, Boldt and Belloni cases, of the 1960’s to 1980’s) This is likely the source of some of the misunderstandings that Klamaths had regarding termination. It is clear that whatever the BIA told the Klamaths, they did not emphasize the fact that the states and the federal government were proceeding with the development of irrigation projects (dams) on the Klamath River and this would severely limit and even destroy the fish populations on the river. Senators Neuberger and Morris were heavily involved with the development agreements.

The process of termination for the Klamath Indians was more drawn out than that for other Oregon Tribes. Because of their immense resources, the Klamath Tribe was appointed a group of Management Specialists by Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay (formerly the Oregon Governor). These specialists were supposed to prepare the Klamath Tribe for termination and prepare their vast timber resources and lands for sale, and for the proceeds of the sales to be divided among the Klamath people. They set up an office in Klamath Falls and publish a newspaper for six years documenting the progress of termination.

February 5, 1954, Dr. Cressman answers Oliver La Farge and details many of the complex political issues at Klamath;

The Klamath situation is a confused one. The problem of leadership there is very complex and both the qualities that exist and the direction in which it moves is so tied up with competing interests that I am afraid that the total picture there is one of confusion. This does not mean that the Klamaths do not have excellent potential leaders and people who are making a success economically, but on the whole these people are not the political leaders.

The great difficulty in connection with the present movement is that there has never been any effective communication to the individual level of what it’s all about. I am quite sure that at the present time no one knows what the wishes of the majority of the Indians are, and I am equally quite sure that very few know what the proposals of the Federal Government are. Most of the reaction is apparently determined by suspicion of and an animosity toward the Indian Bureau and competing leadership candidates….

I do not know anyone to suggest to you as an expert witness. Dr. Stern of this Department knows more about the present situation on the reservation, as a result of his community studies over three or four years, then anyone else. He is not, however, familiar with some of the problems involved in the case of liquidation. Furthermore he is working on the Klamath claims and feels that he should not jeopardize his impartial position in that case by appearing as a witness in the Klamath hearing. He prefers not to be considered.

 I am reasonably familiar with the over-all picture and a considerable amount of what it involves, but I am not familiar as Dr. Stern with the personal complications that affect the questions of leadership, etc.…

Just as a personal opinion and as one who has followed this program over the years, and whose sympathy is certainly with the Indians, I am not too sure but what some action which requires the Klamaths to “fish or cut bait” is a bad one. It is my opinion that reasonably heroic efforts are going to have to be made to salvage the values, both human and economic, for the Klamaths. I’m quite sure that they are capable of working it out, but not overnight. The continuation of the present situation is not favorable either to the Klamaths or their neighbors.[iii]

There is a clear difference in the situation of the Klamath reservation with that of Grand Ronde and Siletz. For the Klamath people, Dr. Cressman above tried to describe the political complexity of the problem. What Dr. Cressman is describing is likely the situation on every reservation that was subjected to termination.

However, at the time of termination, the Klamath people varied in their understandings of what was to occur. “Some Klamath believed that to vote for termination would mean complete dissociation from the tribe, and others that it simply meant no further right to income from tribal assets.”[iv] Apparently, this was also the case in 1955 as the Stanford Research Institute found that “…the Klamath are less well prepared for termination than was believed by the (Congressional) …subcommittee…”[v] For the 7 years that the Specialists operated, 1954-1961; they made no progress toward preparing the Klamath for termination. The government was mainly concerned that they operated within the letter of the law and they were sure to only “consult” with the Klamaths rather than gain their “consent”.[vi] The implications of the efforts of the government for preparation of the Klamath for termination are that they were not concerned with the welfare of the Klamath people, only about the Klamath resources.

However, the benefits for the state of Oregon were very great, with termination came the sudden release of hundreds of thousands of acres of Ponderosa Pine timber in eastern Oregon, and several thousand in western Oregon. This was theorized to result in a boom in the timber industry. The termination of Klamath and the western Oregon tribes released the State and federal government from obligations to the treaty rights (land, social services, education, and security) of 64 tribes. This action resulted in the immediate development and implementation of irrigation projects, mainly dams, to fully bring the largest rivers in the area under the control of the power and water industry. This industry desired the full extraction of power and water resources to feed the growing energy and water needs in California, an economy that presented fast growth following World War II (7th largest economy in the world).

Finally, the release of over 900,000 acres of land from federal trust status, the bulk of the Klamath Reservation, allowed these lands to become part of the federal and state tax bases. Reservation Indians did not pay taxes, and if a white man owned the same land, state and federal governments can tax the land, tax the income of the landowner, tax the resources from that land, and tax industries that develop because of those resources. This became a winning strategy for the federal and state governments, and is one of the main reasons why termination was approved of through many levels of government.

Associated with the issue of self-support is the fact that even if the Grand Ronde people are self-supporting and have assimilated well into Oregon society, still this does not mean that they ought to be terminated. The treaties that were ratified by Congress in the 1850’s do not contain any stipulations that assimilated Indians are not covered by treaty.

The manner in which the original conception of termination was altered by the federal government deserves examination. Dr. Tom Ball of the Klamath Indian Tribe reported that they originally approached the government to free themselves from Indian Office administration of their reservation (Ball 2006). Through successive discussions and legislative changes in Congress and the House, the original concept was altered to become the termination of the tribe, its lands, resources, and all federal support. The original understandings of what was being discussed between the Klamath Tribe and the Indian Office were lost in the political maneuvers of the federal legislative system. Somewhat representative of the original understand is the Oregonian newspaper article of February 19, 1952 which reported,

[E. Morgan] Pryse [Indian Agent] said the Indians want to keep their treaty fishing and hunting rights and to keep their reservation intact. The reservation’s business, which includes farming, timber and grazing, could be run as a cooperative by the Indians, he said.

The governor [Douglas McKay] said “the reservation is self-supporting, so that the transfer wouldn’t cost the state anything” (Oregonian 1952b).

The stated desires by the Klamath Indians and the statement by Douglas McKay appear to be a way that the government officials devised to sell the plan to Congress and to the public. Apparently, this was a positive argument for the Indians and the state. However, statements by Oregon State Education director Harvey Wright conflict with McKay’s statement about this transfer costing the state nothing. In reality the process of termination involved the selling off of the Klamath Tribe’s lands and resources. This was the most important part of the Klamath Termination Act as the reservation was not recognized as terminated until the Reservation lands were completely disposed of in 1961. The last of the Klamath timberlands became the Winema National Forest.

Therefore, the stated way that termination would proceed and what it would involve was different from that being reported in the media in 1952. In fact, the final statement by E. Morgan Pryse in the Oregonian article appears to contradict the original statement above,

“Pryse told the group it would be more satisfactory for the Indians to be put under state jurisdiction because then they would have only to go to Salem to get help, instead of going 3000 miles to Washington, D.C.” (Oregonian 1952b).

This statement is odd if in fact the Klamath tribe would be self-supporting, why then would they need any services from Salem. The statement likely was in reference to a parallel discussion occurring in the Oregon Indian Affairs Committee about the impact of the terminated Indians, those who would immediately need state services, namely education, health care, employment, and the like.

This apparent misunderstanding of the full impact of termination is mirrored by similar perceptions of Klamath Tribal members. Many Klamath people still did not understand the full intent of the federal termination process at least five years into their proceedings, and maintained that their termination was only supposed to remove the Indian Office administration from the reservation, rather than the complete liquidation of all tribal assets.  In a related note, the Menominee, who also had vast timberlands,  apparently understood the termination process well and held out to keep possession of their lands. They were able to form a corporation to manage their land and resources, and their former reservation became Menominee County, with some political representation in their state, and therefore did not lose everything.

Morgan Pryse’s last statement (1952b) appears to presage the real situation of many Klamath Indians following their termination in 1961, as well as the Siletz, Grand Ronde and Southwestern Oregon Indian communities, many of whose members immediately went on welfare and unemployment following their termination or after involvement in the federal relocation and education programs.

[i] Since 2001 there began political and economic conflicts over water resources in the Klamath Basin. Research in the area of termination has surprisingly led to look at the Klamath river water resources issues, which are strongly related to the contemporary conflicts in that they involve issues of Tribal sovereignty, irrigation and maintaining fishing stocks. In the period 1944-1960, Congress and The Department of Interior held negotiations and hearings about the Klamath water irrigation issues. Some of the DOI annual appropriations hearings held before Congress, involved back-to-back hearings of what funding was necessary for the many bureaus that make up the DOI and all of the irrigation projects that were re-initiated following WWII and annual funding requirements and needs of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There were direct comparisons by Congressmen of the $46 million annual budget of the BIA for an estimated 300,000 Indians, and the many hundreds of millions of dollars needed by the Bureau of Reclamation for their Irrigation projects in 17 Western states.  That WWII caused a delay in irrigation projects throughout the United States, projects initiated by the DOI following the Dust Bowl era. The money being spent on Indians was seen as wasteful when it could be put to better use in building dams for white Americans. Congress needed to find a good reason to terminate the Indian reservations and eliminate the need for a BIA to free up this money for their many projects.

The history of the irrigation projects is remarkable. We can trace these issues back to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. This was a time when the terribly corrosive agricultural practices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries came to affect the mid-west. Almost simultaneously large tracts of formerly highly productive farmlands became vast wastelands. A combination of drought and the loss of top soils caused a collapse of agriculture in the mid-west. Thousands of poor workers moved westward to the states of Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, to find work in agriculture. This may have been one of the largest migrations of native peoples in recorded history.[i] The Congress began planning to initiate irrigation projects in the west to preserve and stabilize water resources.

These plans were interrupted by World War II, which drew all of the country’s extra resources to carry on a war on two fronts. After the war, Congress began working again on the irrigation projects. In simultaneous hearings about the various DOI program budgets in 1944, questions were asked about why Indian Affairs spent so much money (abt $40 million) on so few people (abt 300,000 Indians).[i] These hearings happened back-to-back with hearings about irrigation projects of 17 western states. Clearly, the critique generated interest in using funds for Indian Affairs for irrigation projects. One Senator (find reference) asked, “What is the return on an investment in irrigation projects on Indian reservations?” The answer was that there was no return. Afterwards it was asked what was the return for an investment in irrigation projects on state and federal lands.


[ii] Correspondence of May 11, 1954 A.S. Wright to Governor Paul Patterson, Cecilia Loch Cressman Collection (Ax 554), Division of  Special Collections, University of Oregon Libraries, page 3.


[iii] Correspondence of  February 5, 1954, Luther S Cressman to Oliver LaFarge, Cecilia Loch Cressman Collection (Ax 554), Division of  Special Collections, University of Oregon Libraries.


[iv] Summarized in Mobley, 1971, pp 7-8, originally-Pearson v Oregon, No. 61-7920, 1961.


[v] Ibid, p 8 from the Stanford Research Institute, 1955.


[vi] Ibid, p 7, from A.G. Harper’s notes of April 9, 1955.


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