By Tara Lohan
“Empire originates in the perception of place. Maps are the tools of perception, charting land, sea, and sky – just as they map our imaginations.”
— Chellis Glendinning
The Klamath Basin of Southern Oregon and Northern California is a place of shifting borders and uncertain boundaries. It is a place where a war between two nations has been a war of geography, with maps wielded as weapons.
Gerald Skelton, Derek Kimbol, and Perry Chocktoot drive along the roads of their reservation. Only rarely do they correct themselves and say “former reservation.”
The three men are members of the Klamath Tribes, a confederation of the Klamath Tribe, the Modoc Tribe, and the Yahooskin Band of Snake Indians, whose roots are in the Klamath Basin.
Skelton steers the pickup from muddy dirt roads to paved county roads. The men crane their necks in search of a good-looking cedar.
“We were like a baby that gets its umbilical cord cut – we were separated from our mother,” Chocktoot says. “Getting the land back is something we have to do. We don’t have a choice. It’s like a salmon – how a salmon knows to swim up river – it’s going home. We know inside us in the same way that this is our home.”
More than 14,000 years ago the Klamath peoples staked a claim to a piece of this earth. The boundaries of their home were the peaks of mountains, the edges of lakes, and the creeping fingers of desert. They marked their territory not with flags or fences, but with a relationship with the land built over generations.
But their perception of place differed vastly from that of the U.S. government and its settlers, who began arriving in the area in the mid-1800s. In 1864, twenty-seven men representing the tribes signed a treaty with the U.S. wherein the tribes ceded their 22-million-acre ancestral homeland for two small certainties: a permanent homeland of 2 million acres and a “trust relationship” with the United States.
But from the moment the treaty was signed, the Klamath’s land began to shrink like the surrounding lakes that were being drained so that colonizers could farm the marshes.
Over the next hundred years the maps reflected a changing border and a broken trust. Erroneous surveys, bogus government policies, and a military road cut chunks out of the reservation.
In 1954 Congress terminated federal recognition of the Klamath Tribes as part of an experimental policy of forced assimilation. Without approval from the Klamath tribal government and in violation of the 1864 treaty, the Klamath lost their health and social services. They lost their designation as an Indian nation. And they lost what was left of their reservation – nearly 1 million acres of mostly old-growth ponderosa forest that allowed for their self-sufficiency. (The Klamath were one of the first of an eventual 109 tribes and bands to be “terminated.” The state of Oregon, teeming with rich timber resources, was the hardest hit by the policy, with 62 terminated tribes.)
In the aftermath of the termination, 90,000 acres of the reservation were sold to the timber company Crown-Zellerbach; the rest of the 880,000 acres went to the U.S. federal government and were incorporated into what is now the Fremont-Winema National Forests.
The Forest Service’s post-termination management of the land resulted in “unconstrained road-building and logging,” wrote Edward C. Wolf in a 2003 Tidepool article. “More than 300,000 acres [have] been degraded by heavy cutting or recent clear-cuts.” Over the course of forty years, the timber produced $450 million in revenues for the United States.
Termination devastated not only the land, but also the Klamath people. Between 1966 and 1980 nearly 30 percent of all Klamath people died by the age of 25; more than half died by the age of 40; and 40 percent of all deaths were alcohol-related.
It took over 25 years for the U.S. government to acknowledge the iniquity of the termination policy. In 1986, the Klamath Tribes were finally “restored to federal recognition” and given back their tribal status, though not their land.
Skelton, Chocktoot, and Kimbol believe in exercising those rights. Skelton pulls the truck off the road when they find a suitable cedar. The men offer short prayers and begin their gentle harvest. They are there to gather a small amount of cedar for use in a ceremony.
As a result of mismanagement by the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, most resources on the former reservation are scarce. In the years following termination, deer herds dropped to one-tenth their original size and c’waam, or sucker, a fish sacred to the Klamath, became officially endangered.
Today, 1,400 farms are served by the project. They raise cattle and crops such as potatoes, onions, alfalfa, sugar beets, and mint. The farmers and ranchers are dependent on irrigation.
In 2001, drought struck, and the U.S Bureau of Reclamation temporarily shut off water to irrigators to protect the sucker population under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Ethnic tensions flared, pitting the Klamath Tribes and other indigenous neighbors who rely on fish against mostly white farmers and ranchers.
The following year, the Klamath were asked by the federal government to consider reducing their claims to water in exchange for a land return. They were hopeful that the Bush administration, eager to please their farming and ranching constituents, would jump at the chance to allocate more water rights for irrigation. But a suitable settlement has yet to be reached.
Tribal members want self-sufficiency, which for them includes economic and cultural resources. “What’s important now is getting our reservation back,” said Kimbol. “It would mean the livelihood and the spiritual wellness of our children. I believe that in healing this land our people would again be healthy.”
But the Klamath know that any settlement regarding a reservation will have been resolved alongside one of the West’s bitterest water wars.
The tribes have drafted a detailed forest-management plan and are willing to keep the land open to the public for recreation. But so far, they have received little support. In 2003, 17 of Oregon’s environmental groups publicly opposed the Klamath’s land return. Following the announcement, the Oregon National Resources Council’s conservation director, Jay Ward, said that he didn’t think American people should “be asked to give up public lands, natural resources, and the priceless national-forest legacy that belongs to us all.”
Regaining their reservation would also represent a significant step toward reclaiming their self-sufficiency, as the land would generate needed income and jobs.
“I’ve heard it called holy evergreen,” Kimbol says as he pulls cedar from the tree. “Because even after it is cut it still stays green. In the old days people used it to heal. They’d pray with cedar and they’d come out okay.”
Tara Lohan spent a year traversing the Cascade Mountains weekly to interview members of the Klamath Tribes as part of a master’s project in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon. She now lives in Northern New Mexico. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.