Klamath Tribes Get Control Of Termination Era Tribal Funds

Klamath Tribes Get Control Of Termination Era Tribal Funds

By:  Ali Sullivan

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 Era."

"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.