Klamath Tribes Get Control Of Termination Era Tribal Funds

Law360 (January 5, 2023, 6:39 PM EST) — Native American
tribes in Oregon and California will have access to money held in federal trust
for decades after President Joe Biden signed legislation repealing a
termination era policy preventing the tribes from controlling the funds.

The enactment, inked last month, allows the Klamath Tribes –
comprising the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin-Paiute people – to access and
freely disburse the more than $600,000 previously kept in federal coffers. The
money was set aside during a policy period known as the termination era, during
which the United States ended government-to-government relationships with
several tribes, including the Klamath Tribes, in 1954.

The return of the funds to the tribal members who will
decide how to spend it is important to tribal members, both literally and
symbolically, Morgan Saunders, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights
Fund, told Law360 on Thursday.

“It’s the most foundational thing that a government can
do — is take funding and decide how it’s best to be used for its
citizens,” Saunders said.

NAR and the tribes have worked for several years to repeal
the Klamath Tribes Judgment Fund Act, the 1965 law restricting the funds,
Saunders said.

Klamath Tribes Tribal Chairman Clayton Dumont cheered the
repeal in a statement, saying the move represents Congress’ acknowledgment
“that the Klamath Tribes should determine the appropriate distribution of
tribal funds held in federal trust accounts for the past nearly 60 years.”

The judgment fund was established in the wake of the Klamath
Tribes’ termination, setting aside money for their legal costs and accruing
money won in the subsequent litigation against the United States for
mismanagement of tribal assets, according to NARF. The 1965 act laid out
specific requirements for how the money was collected and paid out to tribal
members and heirs.

But the fund’s purpose was mooted in 1986, when the Klamath
Tribes regained their federal recognition, then-Tribal Chairman Donald Gentry
said in April in written testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources’
Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples.

A payout has not been made to tribal members in “at
least a decade,” Saunders said, and the costs to make the distributions
are high.

In a Tuesday statement, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who
introduced the repeal bill in the U.S. Senate, applauded its enactment as
correcting “one of many grievous injustices from the Termination

“For decades, the Klamath Tribes have been unjustly
kept from distributing funds that the Tribes won in judgments against the
United States government for past wrongs,” Merkley said. “My bill,
now a law, will restore the ability of the Klamath Tribes to distribute these
funds, representing an important acknowledgment of their sovereignty and right
to self-determination.

–Editing by Kristen Becker.