On December 21, 2022, the Klamath Tribes Judgment Fund Repeal Act, S. 314, was signed
into law by President Biden. As a result, the Klamath Tribes will regain
self-governance over money held in trust by the United States government for
almost sixty years.
In 1954, federal legislation terminated the existing
government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and the Klamath and
Modoc Tribes and the Yahooskin Band of Snake Indians (now Klamath Tribes). This
action broke the Tribes’ 1864 recognition treaty and was taken without the consent or support of the Klamath tribal government.
As the termination act took hold, separating the Klamath Tribes
from ownership of their timber rich reservation, the Tribes’ property was the
subject of legal claims against the U.S. for mismanagement of tribal assets.
Tribal funds were set aside by members recorded on the “final roll”
taken in 1954 to pursue that litigation. Later, monetary judgments from the
successful litigation were used to replenish the fund.
However, after a long effort, the Klamath Tribes regained
their federal recognition in 1986. Since then, the Tribes have sought control
over those funds to honor the request of the members on the “final
roll” that the funds they set aside be returned to them. The language of
the 1965 Termination Era Judgement Fund Distribution Act did not anticipate the
Tribes regaining federal recognition and so had no mechanism to permit the
Tribes to return the funds to the members on the “final roll.”
For years, successive Klamath Tribes elected leadership and
staff have been working to repeal the law that allowed the federal government
to hold these funds without input from the Tribes about how they should be
dispersed. Thanks to bipartisan support from the Senate Committee on Indian
Affairs under the leadership of Senators Schatz and Murkowski and the House
Committee on Natural Resources under the leadership of Representatives Raúl
Grijalva and Bruce Westerman the repeal legislation has finally passed and the
Tribes can move past this enduring scar from this disastrous federal
termination era policy. This would not have been possible without the help of
Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, Representative Cliff Bentz, the Native
American Rights Fund (NARF), Pipestem Law, and other allies.
“At long last, Congress has acknowledged that the
Klamath Tribes should determine the appropriate distribution of tribal funds
held in federal trust accounts for the past nearly 60 years,” said Klamath
Tribes Tribal Chairman Clayton Dumont.
“For decades, the Klamath Tribes have been unjustly
kept from distributing funds that the Tribes won in judgements against the
United States government for past wrongs. My bill, now a law, will restore the
ability of the Klamath Tribes to distribute these funds, representing an
important acknowledgement of their sovereignty and right to
self-determination,” said Sen. Merkley, who introduced and championed the
Klamath Tribe Judgment Fund Repeal Act in the U.S. Senate. “I am pleased
President Biden signed my bill into law to correct one of many grievous
injustices from the Termination Era.”
“The Klamath Tribes have overcome arduous and bitter
legal battles to restore normalcy after the harmful actions of the United
States in the Termination Era. NARF congratulates the Klamath Tribes on this
successful step of regaining control over their funds,” said NARF Executive
Director John Echohawk.