Indians – 06 Post-Contact Life

The Klamath Indians of Southern Oregon Cascades

 Post-Contact Life

The Klamath felt the influence of Euro-Americans well before extensive exploration and settlement reached the Klamath Basin. By the early nineteenth century the presence of Hudson’s Bay Company traders along the Columbia River served both to expand native trade networks and to arm many of the Sahaptin tribes of that region. The Klamath encountered Hudson’s Bay personnel beginning in 1825. Nonetheless for several decades the Klamath remained relatively isolated from the Euro-American presence centered on the Columbia (Stem 1956a:230-32).

In the 1840s the American expeditions led by John C. Fremont marked a new era, in which the goal was conquest and subjugation of the Indian peoples, rather than merely exploration and trade. Changing conditions drew the Klamath into sporadic though unsuccessful warfare against white settlers. At the same time, the wealth that could be gained through slave raiding and trading provided greater incentives for warfare against other Indian tribes. These factors led to a series of changes: greater prestige for leadership in warfare, a more permanent pattern of leadership, and “a heightened sense of Klamath political, as well as cultural, integrity” (Stem 1956a:241).

Over the next two decades the white presence in southern Oregon, military and civilian, steadily increased. In 1864 a treaty was negotiated, not only with the Klamath but with the Modoc and a group of Northern Paiutes as well, ceding vast territories to the federal government, and creating in compensation a reservation of approximately 1,100,000 acres. This established the federally recognized Klamath Tribe, bringing together Klamath, Modoc, and Paiute on what had been exclusively Klamath territory (Stern 1956a; Kappler et al. 19041941:2:865-868; Ruby and Brown 1986:91). This event began a radical transformation of the Klamath way of life.

As a result of the 1864 treaty the Klamath had to contend with a new authority, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Here as elsewhere the Bureau sought to transform Indian culture. As Indian Commissioner Thomas J. Morgan, in 1889, acknowledge the Bureau’s long-standing policy, “The Indians must conform to ‘the white man’s ways,’ peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must” (in Hagan 1988:61). For the Klamath, as Stern has noted, this policy “effected sweeping social change on the reservation, leveling the nascent class distinctions by freeing slaves as full members of the reservation and banning Polygyny, a prerogative particularly of the wealthy” (Stern n.d.:53). More broadly,

An enforced culture change began with the treaty. There was as a result proscription of the shaman’s ecstatic curing activities and an intensity of Christian missionization. Other introductions included a new technology, White education in reservation boarding schools, a new status in relation to an established administrative agency, and new concepts of property, society, and political tribe. (Spencer 1952b:219)

The Klamath historian and former tribal chairman Lynn Schonchin described the change in these terms:

The Klamath experienced the situation of being bound to the land in a different sense. In the aboriginal sense, they were bound to the land by birth because it provided subsistence. Now, they were bound to a reservation by law. This also changed the way in which they lived. Cultural practices were forbidden, no longer could they use the sweatlodge, no longer could they go to the mountains and streams on power quests, no longer could they practice their religion, even their language was forbidden. Yet, because of the strong cultural foundation they had, they adjusted to the new society, and adopted its practices. (Schonchin 1990:150)

It is a testimony to the strength of Klamath culture that, despite the government’s best efforts, the Klamath language and many significant elements of Klamath tradition survived.

Among the reactions to this policy of forced culture change was the enthusiastic acceptance of a series of millenarian movements: in 1871 the Ghost Dance and in 1874 the Earthlodge Cult. Both movements taught that if proper ritual were followed, the dead would return and a new era of felicity would begin for the Indians. These movements carried at least an implicit anti-white sentiment, at times becoming overt in doctrines predicting the disappearance of the whites as part of the predicted world transformation. In the mid-1870s the Dream Dance appeared. This had a different character: rather than offering millenarian images, it provided a new vehicle for traditional (and officially prohibited) shamanistic performance (see Spier 1927a; Nash 1937; DuBois 1939:11-12). The Indian Shaker Church, a syncretic religious movement originating oil Puget Sound which combined traditional and Christian elements, came to the Klamath Reservation in 1914. It remained influential there for several decades, and retains a small but active following today (Barnett 1957; Stem1966:223-37; Amoss 1990).

The modern Klamath Reservation has had a complex history. Tribal boundaries have been repeatedly redrawn, and complex schemes of compensation undertaken (Ruby and Brown 1986:90-95). The General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887, intended to break up tribal holdings and convert traditional Indian peoples into Americanized farmers, proved comparatively ineffective on Klamath Reservation. The Klamath Reservation lands consisted largely of timber, inhospitable to farming, and in any case too valuable to be declared surplus and sold to outsiders. As a result, from early in the twentieth century tribal members received substantial income from timber operations (Stern 1961:172-73). The comparative wealth this allowed served as an effective goad to culture change, and in particular to the abandonment of much traditional economic activity:

From 1913, tribal members began to enjoy dividends from the cutting of tribal timber, in the form of semi-annual per capita payments. They also saw the mushroom growth of mill towns upon the face of the reservation, where sizeable bodies of whites, far exceeding the total tribal membership, lived under state jurisdiction and offered a scale of living previously beyond ken and reach of tribal members, but now close and seemingly attainable. (Stern 1961:173)

In 1955 the Klamath Tribe had 2118 enrolled members (Stem 1966:316). Over time, an increasing number of tribal members have moved from the reservation. While at the turn of the century roughly ten percent lived off the reservation, by 1958 over fifty percent did so (Stern 1966:185). Of these absentee tribal members, about a quarter lived in Klamath County in towns near the reservation, while others “were scattered throughout areas of southern Oregon and northern California where Klamath had long had ties” (Stem 1966:185).

The most dramatic event in the history of the Klamath Reservation came in 1954, with the passage of Public Law 587, which terminated the Klamath Reservation, and ended the Klamath tribe as a federally recognized entity. (The Western Oregon Termination Act, also passed in 1954, terminated among other groups the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, both of which included descendants of Takelma, Molala, and Upper Umpqua peoples, and the Cow Creeks, a group of Takelma descendants.)

The policy of termination–while ostensibly intended to benefit Indian peoples by allowing them to escape from a stifling federal paternalism–proved extremely destructive (see Nash 1988:270-72). In the Klamath case, compensation was most commonly administered through an elaborate series of court-mandated trusteeships. Most of the former reservation lands were purchased by the federal government (at below-market prices), from which the Winema National Forest was created in 1961. As one team of economists judged the results, “It appears that individual Klamath received few lasting economic benefits from termination. For the majority, termination simply meant substitution of private for federal paternalism,” privately administered trusts replacing federal bureaucracies (Trulove and bunting 1971:17).

Despite these events, a tribal political organization survived the termination process. In the 1970s and 80s the tribal organization achieved a number of victories which strengthened the capacity of the Klamath to endure as a people. In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Klamath fishing and hunting rights granted by treaty survived the termination process (Kimbol v. Callaghan). In 1979 another legal victory guaranteed minimum stream flows in the Klamath River to protect fish and wildlife. In 1986 Congress rescinded the 1954 termination by reestablishing the Klamath as a federally recognized tribe, thus making the tribe and its members eligible for wide range of medical, educational, and economic opportunities (Schonchin 1987).


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