The Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin tribes had about 22 million acres of aboriginal lands throughout the Klamath Basin.
Klamath Indians originally lived along the northwest shore of the Upper Klamath and around Agency Lake. Their territories stretched into the uplands of the Sprague River valley.
The Modoc ancestral lands included most of the Upper Klamath Basin, while the Yahooskin people occupied the area east of Yamsay Mountain, south of Lakeview and north of Fort Rock.
Although the three tribes were not traditionally allies, they agreed in 1864 to cede most of their land to the federal government and live together on a reservation, retaining their hunting, fishing, gathering, and water rights.
Land is everything to Indian people, and the elders of the Klamath Tribes watched as their assets were essentially stolen, said Jeff Mitchell, Klamath Tribal Council member.
After giving up their aboriginal lands, the tribes were placed on the Klamath Reservation. The Dawes Act of 1887 divided the reserved lands into farm-sized parcels and assigned ownership to individual Indian people or families.
"Traditionally, most land was held in common and our ancestors had no concept of land ownership," Mitchell said. "When the government started dividing up reservation lands into allotments, many lost their lands due to foreclosure because they didn't understand taxes. They wouldn't know they'd lost their land until the new owner showed up."
The new owner always was non-Indian and always had the backing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mitchell said.
"Today, of all the original allotment land, maybe 97 percent is non-Indian owned. It was 20 years after allotment that the first reservation land transferred to a non-Indian owner," he said. "By the time of termination in 1954, roughly 50 percent was under non-Indian ownership. After termination, it really went wild."
As a federally recognized tribe, the Klamath Indians held certain rights. In 1954, the government terminated their status as a recognized tribe, beginning an era of extreme hardship for the people.
"The community was in distress," Mitchell said. "Tensions mounted and families had problems with unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse."
Data compiled by the Klamath Tribes showed that during the time of termination, between the years of 1966 and 1980, 28 percent of tribal members died by age 25 and 52 percent died by age 40. Forty percent of deaths were alcohol related.
Additionally, poverty levels among Klamath Indians were three times that of non-Indians in Klamath County - the poorest county in Oregon.
Today, Mitchell said, of the 250,000 acres of reserved land, between 7,000 and 8,000 acres still are owned by the tribes.
Mitchell, a Modoc, has spent most of his life near Chiloquin. He was there when tribal member Edison Chiloquin made his stand to keep the federal government from taking his allotment land. He was there when the Klamath Tribes' federal recognition was reinstated.
Through continuous campaigning to state and federal government representatives, the Klamath Tribes successfully had their federal recognition reinstated in 1986, although none of their reservation lands were returned to them.
"I've seen a lot of turmoil and confusion," Mitchell said. "It was a difficult time for some people to adjust, and some of them didn't."
Mitchell is proud of the recovery the Klamath Tribes made in the face of such adversity and said he's hopeful about the opportunity a compromise reached by the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement - a water settlement between irrigators, tribes and other stakeholders - will offer the Tribes. He spoke both about the increased water rights and the 90,000-acre Mazama Tree Farm that would come back under tribal ownership.
"We are trying to figure out what will sustain our tribes into the future," Mitchell said. "It's a step in the right direction. Will it fix everything? No, but it will provide a significant piece of property so we can continue to rebuild."