Friday, October 16, 2009

Oregon Modocs Reassert Unique Identity & Right to Self-Government: to Separate from the Klamath Tribes

Modoc Land Recovery Project
Press Release: October 15, 2009

Oregon Modocs Take First Step to Separate from Klamath Tribes and Form Own Government — Issue Country's First Tribal Declaration Based on UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Approximately thirty Modoc Indians attended a meeting last Friday evening (10-09-2009) in the Klamath County Commissioner's Hearing Room in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where they listened to a presentation by Perry Chesnut in which he urged them to join the movement to reestablish Modoc self-government and sovereignty over their ancestral homelands by signing the Declaration of the Rights of the Free and Sovereign People of the Modoc Indian Tribe .

Chesnut, whose Indian name is Two Eagles, is a life-long social activist and champion of indigenous rights. In 1992, the late Miller Anderson adopted Chesnut into his family and made him a member of the Modoc Tribe. Miller Anderson is a direct descendant of Sloc-a-lot (known to white settlers as Chief George), who at the time of the Modoc Indian War of 1872-73 was the acknowledged La̕qi (Modoc for "Leader") or Headman of the Kokiwas Band of the Modoc Tribe.

The 11-page Declaration contains 46 Articles setting forth various inalienable rights preceded by a preamble containing 30 statements as to the reasons why the Declaration has been issued. It is believed to be the first such declaration issued by any Native American tribe or nation that is based on the provisions of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) approved by the UN General Assembly in September of 2007.

We must take decisive action to reassert our unique tribal and cultural identity

Mr. Chesnut opened the meeting by noting that the Modoc Indians of southern Oregon and northern California are living in a time of crisis. He stated that just two days before the meeting he had received a phone call from a Klamath Indian who "angrily told me that the Klamath Tribes are one people — that the Modoc Indians have no separate identity or culture, that they and the Klamaths are culturally indistinguishable."

"What could be more sacred to us than our unique identity as an Indian people? Yet that identity has been slowly slipping away for the last fifty or more years, being eroded and submerged into a mishmash of Indian peoples enrolled in the political organization known as the Klamath Tribes. And make no mistake, the Klamath Tribes is not a tribe. It is a political organization, an affiliation of three separate tribes, to which no law or moral imperative requires us to remain tied. Today very few people draw a distinction between the Klamath and Modoc peoples. Yet our Creator did distinguish between all other people and us, making us unique and giving us our own unique homeland and culture. We must take decisive action to reassert our unique tribal and cultural identity. And we must do it now, before it is too late."

Indisputable evidence of the unique identity and culture of the Modoc Indians

Mr. Chesnut noted archaeological evidence showing that the Modoc Indians have occupied southern Oregon and northern California continuously for the last 12,000 to 15,000 years and stated that there is no scientific evidence showing a similar history for the Klamath Indians. "Compared to us the Klamaths are relative newcomers to this region," Chesnut said.

Chesnut also cited ethnological field research by the University of Washington Laboratory of Anthropology in 1934 that concluded that the belief systems, values, patterns and practices of the Modoc Indians up to the time of the Modoc Indian War of 1872-73 "set their culture clearly apart from any other in the world, even from their immediate California neighbors."

Chesnut also cited a book titled Myths of the Modocs published in 1912, containing a large number of myths related to Jeremiah Curtin in 1884 by Ko-a-lak'-ak-a, a Modoc woman who was part of the group of Modocs exiled to Oklahoma at the close of the Modoc Indian War in 1873. According to the author's introduction to the 389 page book, "In childhood her grandfather had instructed her in the religion of her people, in other words, taught her all the myths of the Modocs, and to old age her tenacious memory retained many of them."

Chesnut stated that this book is "absolute proof" of the separate identity and culture of the Modoc people. As an example, he read from a passage in the story called "Kumush [Modoc for Creator] and His Daughter" that describes how the Creator made, named and gave to each of the Shasta, Pitt River, Warm Springs, Klamath and Modoc peoples their own lands and unique characteristics. Chesnut stated that the book is filled with mythical events that occurred at such places as Mt. Shasta, Lost River, Tule Lake, the Sycan River and Marsh, and Glass Mountain. "These references to culturally significant events associated with places can be used to verify and validate the extent and boundaries of our ancestral homelands," Chesnut said.

Chesnut also referred to the unique style and quality of Modoc baskets, which are prized by museums and collectors around the world. "It is not Klamath baskets that enjoy this distinction, but Modoc baskets."

Chesnut concluded this portion of his talk by stating: "It is beyond dispute that our people are a unique people with our own unique identity and culture. I have shared this with you because before we can do, we must be."

Declaration of the Rights of the Free and Sovereign People of the Modoc Indian Tribe

Holding up a copy of the Declaration, Chesnut stated that the document "is not a petition asking for relief from some higher authority, but a declaration of our fundamental rights as a people that reasserts our status as a unique tribe independent of any other." He said that it enumerates "specific God-given rights inherent to us as a tribe, including, but not limited to:

  • the recognition of our political sovereignty,
  • political and economic self-determination,
  • the restoration and control of our homelands, which cover an area of between 5,000 and 6,500 square miles and include three national forests
  • the right to protect our homelands and their resources from the detrimental actions of third parties,
  • the right to preserve and protect our culture, including our language, arts, religion and sacred places;
  • the right to bring home and reunite with our brothers and sisters who are living in exile in Oklahoma.
All of these rights can be boiled down to one overarching right — the RIGHT TO SELF-GOVERNMENT."

Chesnut declared, "Those who sign this document will be declaring their identity as a Modoc Indian, and they will be preparing the ground for the reinstitution of our own tribal government through the drafting, ratification and, if legally necessary, U.S. Government approval of our own constitution."

Constitution of Klamath Tribes 'fundamentally and fatally flawed'

Chesnut stated that the Constitution and Bylaws of the Klamath Tribes is "fundamentally and fatally flawed, and we will never be able to convince the ethnic Klamaths to fix it." He said that it is modeled on the constitutional framework offered to Indian tribes by the government under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1834. "What true government has 'bylaws'? Bylaws are something a club or a corporation have." He said that the Klamath Constitution creates a government with a weak single legislative body (General Council), a strong, directly elected executive body (Tribal Council) and a recently added Judicial branch. Chesnut stated that over the last ten years there has been a nationwide movement of tribes to reform their governments and rewrite their constitutions, moving away from the IRA model still in use by the Klamath Tribes.

Chesnut said that while such an IRA type constitution "might work" for some tribes, it has never worked for the Modocs. "As you all know, with the Lakes Treaty of 1864, the government forced the Modocs and Yahooskin Snake Band of Paiutes to remove to the Klamath Reservation, which was located entirely within the territorial boundaries of Klamath ancestral lands. This itself was a formula for failure, and, in fact was the most important cause of the [Modoc Indian] war and subsequent exile of our people to Oklahoma. But added to this is the fact that the three tribes, all of which have very different histories, beliefs, values and cultures, have been merged by this faulty constitution into a single General Council, in which all decisions are made or ratified by a simple one man one vote majority. The more than ten to one numerical superiority of the ethnic Klamaths over the ethnic Modocs and Yahooskins operates to effectively disenfranchise and subjugate them to ethnic Klamath rule."

A simple analogy

Chesnut asked those gathered at the meeting to imagine what would have happened if the founding fathers of the United States had not had the wisdom to create a bicameral legislative branch, "that is, if the Constitution did not provide for a U.S. Senate to act as a check on the power of the U.S. House of Representatives. Without a Senate, in which each state, regardless of population, has two senators, New York, California, Texas and two or three other states would make all the decisions, rendering the smaller population states effectively powerless, with representation in name only."

"This is the situation we Modocs and our Yahooskin brothers have faced for 136 years, and many of us, perhaps most, are tired of trying to work within a system that is structurally designed to make us powerless against the tyranny of the majority, who are the ethnic Klamaths."

The next step: 'our own constitution'

Chesnut said that after the Modoc people gain sufficient signatures on the Declaration, the next step will be to "draft and ratify our own constitution for the Modoc Tribe." He said that this process must be careful and deliberate because "if we just slap something together, we are likely to end up with a constitution just as bad or worse than the Klamath Tribes constitution we have now. We will need to hold numerous meetings to decide many difficult issues, such as how traditional and decentralized our government should or should not be, what particular governmental structures we need, and what our citizenship criteria will be. Above all, the constitution must reflect the values and culture of our people in order to have the legitimacy and stability necessary to promote political self-determination and healthy economic development."

The difficulty of our task — the inevitability of our freedom

During the question and answer session, Chesnut was told that many Modocs were afraid to sign the Declaration because officials of the Klamath Tribal government would retaliate by taking away their federal benefits or fire them from tribal jobs.

Chesnut responded, "This is going to be a long and difficult process. An independent self-governed Modoc Tribe will be opposed not only by the Klamath Tribal government but by many of the white owned farms and businesses that are making money off of our land. They want things to remain as they are. To the Klamaths our independence will mean a loss of federal dollars which are allocated on the basis of head count. So they see us only as so many dollars. Local farms and businesses are likely to fear that our independence will result in changes that will adversely affect them. So it's going to be hard, and we must expect vigorous opposition to what we are doing."

" But we can also expect support and help from various sources, including other Indian tribes, major university projects and institutes, environmental and human rights organizations, and even from individual white persons in this very community, who want to see the injustices of the past righted. Now that this movement has started, it cannot be stopped so long as we pursue our goal. Our liberation from 136 years of exile and oppression, the reestablishment of Modoc self-government and restoration of our ancestral homelands is inevitable."

"As to your specific concerns about retaliation against those Modocs who sign or promote the Declaration, let me point out that nothing in the Lakes Treaty of 1864 or the Klamath Tribes Restoration Act of 1986 took away our sovereignty as a tribe separate from the Klamath Tribe or Yahooskin Snake Band of Paiutes. In fact, both the Treaty and the Restoration Act list and recognize our tribes separately. Further, what we are doing now is exercising rights to self-government and self-determination authorized and encouraged by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1834, as amended in 1988, and by the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975."

"Until our new constitution is ratified and, if necessary approved by the Interior Department, we will all remain enrolled members of the Klamath Tribes, entitled to receive all the federal benefits we are receiving right now. When our new constitution goes into effect, the BIA and IHS will be required by law to administer these same benefits to our people through our own government instead of the Klamath Tribal government. This transition should be seamless, with no interruption in the flow of benefits."

"In 1968, Congress enacted the Indian Civil Rights Act, which protects political activity and speech such as we are engaging in now. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also has jurisdiction over Indian tribes and nations and enforces regulations designed to prevent and punish discrimination in employment on the part of a dominant band or group."

"One can never prevent another person who is committed to violating the law from doing so, but any retaliation by the Klamath Tribes or its officials against the Modoc People will be immediately be reported to the federal government, and appropriate legal action will be taken. As a tribe we must protect and support each other. We must make the commitment now to financially support any Modoc who is fired from a tribal job in retaliation for exercising his or her right to free speech and political organization, while legal steps are taken to obtain that person's reinstatement and back-pay. And I can assure you, if anything like that happens, there will be serious legal consequences for the Klamath tribal officials involved."

Signatures obtained and Declaration Bearers

At the close of the meeting, thirteen adult Modocs signed the Declaration, bringing the current total number of signers to just over fifty. Additionally, four individuals volunteered to act as Declaration Bearers, that is, to carry and promote the Declaration to other Modocs and to obtain their signatures. These individuals include John Slaughter, Preston Miles and Diana Wright. Modocs wishing to learn more about or sign the Declaration of Rights and the movement to enact a Modoc constitution, or who wish to become Declaration Bearers themselves should contact any of the following persons.

Robert Wayne Anderson, 541-591-2956
John Slaughter,
Preston Miles, 541-274-1330,
Diana Wright, 541-273-8874,
Perry Chesnut, 425-770-7345,

A copy of the Declaration of the Rights of the Free and Sovereign People of the Modoc Indian Tribe is attached as a Microsoft Word .doc file. For more information concerning this press release, contact:

Perry Chesnut
Modoc Land Recovery Project

Copyright 2009: Modoc Land Recovery Project

Native Rights News is making this material from [name of news source] available in accordance with the Fair Use Doctrine codified at Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107: This article is distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information. Distribution of this material is for research and educational purposes that will promote social and economic justice and benefit society.
Native Rights News (NRN) is published by the Alliance for Indigenous Rights, a nonprofit corporation owned and operated by Temple Beit Shem Tov as part of its Peace and Justice Ministry.

No comments:

Add to Technorati Favorites