Centuries of Genocide: Modoc Indians, Part V (Termination Era, 1954-1986)

( – promoted by navajo)


photo credit: Aaron Huey

Don’t worry if you missed previous installments. This diary will serve as a stand-alone and as part of the series.

In the 20th century, there were two separate, legal, Modoc entities: the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, which includes the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahuskin peoples (a band of Snake Indians), created by an 1864 Treaty, and the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, who were created out of the US Army’s POWs from the Modoc War of 1872-1873.

Blogging is a self-reflexive and responsive activity. Several commentators have appeared, calling these diaries “whining” about the past. Not relevant to present concerns.  That is not true.  This is a generational series, and by starting off with contact, we’ve worked our way with a context to the 20th century. We’ve covered the eras of (Fur) Trade, the First Reservation System (they stay over there) the Second Reservation System, (they move to there) the Indian Wars in the West, (kill the people) forced removal (we send them there) the Assimilation Era (save the man, kill the Indian) and now we come to a forgotten time. It’s forgotten even though many of its survivors are still alive: The Termination Era. And many of you were alive then, too.

What is Termination? If I was to tell you that an Indian tribe legally existed and then it later didn’t, you might find that a little surprising. But that’s exactly what happened, multiple times, in modern American history.  So along came a proponent of assimilation.  He was a Western senator, a Mormon, moderately conservative, of the Republican Party. And he had a plan that would legally extinguish Modoc people in Oregon.

Geographic and Economic Context

In order to understand the termination of the Klamath Tribes, we need to talk about money, politics and God.  With the Fourth and Fifth Generations since contact nearly all dead, Modoc people in Oregon were fully transformed. Once a people of marshes (originally called “Lake Indians”) who would subsist on the woca lily, fish, waterfowl and their eggs, and big game, the Modoc people now lived far to the north, east of Crater Lake in the Ponderosa pine forests of the Klamath Reservation. The Sixth and Seventh Generations grew up speaking English and were Christians–Methodists mostly. Forced dependency on western foods–flour, sugar, salt–made for a semi-Western diet.

All together, the land that had been lost by the three tribes totaled 23 million acres. By comparison, in 1888, the Klamath reservation spanned 1,056,000 acres (that equals 4.5%).  The rights to fish, hunt and gather on the reservation were retained. However, the reservation was resource poorer land than the wetlands and the major rivers to the south.  Attempts to farm as instructed by missionaries had failed. But since all three tribes considered horses a form of wealth, cattle ranching easily translated into a major industry.  Back in the 1850s, cattle on Modoc land was a source of contention as settlers passed through, and Modocs treated the animals as game. But historically, the largest industry of all proved to be timber.  Shortly before the war had began in 1870, a sawmill was finally constructed, as promised in the 1864 treaty.

By the 1880s, Modoc people were transporting goods across Klamath County, down to the main settlement at Linkville, now Klamath Falls, which is on the eastern side of Klamath Lake.  In 1911, reservation timber sales soared with the advent of the railroad economy in the county.  

At the turn of the century, the US was reaching a peak of industrialization; port cities across the West Coast blossomed. That meant a lot of construction–wood construction.

Timber management made the Klamath Tribes one of the richest in the nation.  While pictures of early Portland show a tree-bereft landscape out to the horizon, the Klamath Tribes did not clear-cut.  They would select individual trees, from which sale proceeds would enter a tribal (communal) fund.  There always was (and still is) resentment towards Indians, especially Klamath Tribes people, as to Indian wealth management and resource rights.


Indian policy at this time had taken a turn. Now considered mostly Westernized–educated at boarding schools, English speaking, hair cut, and Christian, not to mention off the valuable land and hidden away at former POW camps–officials saw Indians as mostly benign. In their eyes, assimilation had succeeded. Indians were granted the right to vote in the 20th century. To complete assimilation, Indians would have to be no longer legally separated from society.

The path to termination began in the 1940s, coinciding with the Cold War. The Cold War was at its “hottest” from 1948, when Stalin blockaded Berlin, to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Washington D.C. saw itself in a struggle to defend free markets and democracy both against collective ownership and authoritarian government.  With an American people firmly adhering to generations of rugged individualism philosophy, with warfare seen as positive again (it was despised in the 20th century until WWII) and a deep animosity towards collective ownership, it’s not hard to imagine the sentiments felt by both non-Indians in Klamath County and non-Indian lawmakers in Washington as to the Tribes.

From 1947 to 1959, Arthur V. Watkins served as US senator (sorry for the error) from Utah. He had been a rancher on 600 acres, a Columbia University-educated lawyer and a missionary for the Church of Latter-Day Saints. He remained highly active in the Church.

Watkins was not a rabid anticommunist, but he was fully anathema to Indian values and became the leading proponent of Termination. He saw termination as the completion of assimilation. The senator envisioned benefits from the erasure of differences between Indians and whites (who would eventually breed out the Indian). Actually, he went further, comparing termination to the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War, freeing them from wardship of the state.  Watkins chaired the Senate Interior Committee Subcommittee on Indian Affairs.

Termination Begins

In 1953, the US Congress officially began Termination Era legislation with House Concurrent Resolution 108:

Whereas it is the policy of Congress, as rapidly as possible, to make the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States, to end their status as wards of the United States, and to grant them all of the rights and prerogatives pertaining to American citizenship.

Responsibilities here means federal and state taxes to which legally recognized Indian tribes were not subject. This use of wards arises from perception, dating to surveys in 1943, that found that American Indians were living in abject poverty across the nation. Officials believed they were doing the morally right thing and correcting government abuse by termination. Bureau of Indian Affairs compiled a list of the most economically prosperous tribes to start the termination process. The Klamath Tribes were the second richest. That year, Congress passed Public Law 280, which gave the states legal jurisdiction over all but a couple reservations in the US.

The next year, 1954, was the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Klamath Tribes. Through the heavy involvement of Watkins and like-minded legislators, the first American Indian tribe would be terminated by the Menominee Termination Act.  That August, Congress passed the Klamath Termination Act. Only four years prior, Jennie Clinton, the last Modoc War survivor died.  The Modoc people would legally no longer exist. It only took seven generations since contact.


Termination was not immediate. In fact, Klamath Tribes members could choose between remaining as tribal members or accepting a payment for an individual land parcel to be ceded, but only one choice had much incentive.  Federal recognition of the tribe ceased, and with that, the hunting and fishing rights. And with that abrogation, even more water rights had been lost across the generations. A total of 1660 people withdrew from the tribe. Those remaining became part of a management plan handled by a bank up north in Portland.

The Klamath Reservation lands entered the US Forest Service system, where the lands were badly managed. One portion of former reservation fell under US Fish and Wildlife management. The Tribes state that “the Deer population (while in State and Federal control) went from 60 per sq. mile in the 1950’s, to approximately 4 per sq. mile today, in the former reservation area.”

Modoc people along with the other tribes suffered increasing poverty. The small town of Chiloquin, at the former center of the Klamath Reservation, saw an influx of new whites and a rise in violence. A town of less than 1000 became known as one of the most dangerous places in Oregon: robberies, kidnappings, unsolved disappearances and shootings.

The Seventh and Eighth Generations knew Termination. Kossack deeproots bears witness in the comments:

I remember what happened with the Klamath/Modoc (2+ / 0-)

termination.  Although my family is not Native American, my father had lived and worked in Klamath County and had a number of Klamath friends.  He was in anguish as he saw what happened to so many members of the tribe.  Those who took the cash settlements were preyed upon by merchants in Klamath Falls who sold them stoves and refrigerators when some didn’t even have electricity in their homes, and they jacked up the prices of everything, especially automobiles, which many Klamaths wanted.  The money was soon gone for many former tribal members, who then had absolutely nothing.  Those who kept their land did somewhat better, although the loss of hunting and fishing rights was grievous.  My father said the U.S. government was trying to kill off the Indians and was doing a damn good job of it.  

Congressional termination of tribes ended in the 1960s. Other aspects of Indian policy proved more pernicious. Discreet sterilizations of American Indian women, without their consent or knowledge, date back to the early 20th century and continued until at least the late 1970s. These were especially common in Oregon, the last state to employ sterilization, where it may have continued into the early 1980s. The Indian Adoption Era officially lasted from Termination into the 1970s. With tribes no longer federally recognized, Indian individuals could be adopted by white families and the process of assimilation completed.  Even members of the Ninth Generation of Modoc people since contact, Millenials, have been adopted out to non-Indian families.

Centuries of Genocide: Modoc Indians

Part I (Contact, 1820-1852)

Part II (First Reservation Era, 1852-1872)

Part III (War and Second Reservation Era, 1872-1950)

Part IV (Removal Era, 1873-1909)

Tribal Restoration and Dick Cheney will feature in the next (and final?) part of this series.


The Lowry War

The popular histories of Indians often focus on the many Indian wars, often fought in the Southwest or on the Great Plains. In 1907, the War Department officially enumerated 1,470 incidents of military action against American Indians between 1776 and 1907. According to the War Department, only two of these actions have the formal status of “war” under U.S. Army terminology: the 1877 Nez Perce War and the 1878 Bannock Indian War.

One of the Indian wars which is often overlooked in the popular histories did not take place in the west, but in the South, more specifically in North Carolina. The Lowry War is one part of the story of complex race relations in the South.  

In the era leading up to the Civil War, the economy of the American South was based on plantation agriculture which was supported by slave labor. As a consequence, the South was segregated along so-called racial lines into “White” (the Euro-American slave owners) and “Black” (slaves, primarily of African descent). American Indians really didn’t fall into either category and consequently were (and still continue to be) a troubling enigma for the racially conscious South. Indians were sometimes slaves, and many were also slave-owners. During the 1830s, Southerners, together with the federal government, attempted to solve their “Indian” problem by removing all Indians from the region. However, not all Indians left.

In the racially divided South, there was a tendency to classify Indians as “free people of color,” thus grouping them with Blacks racially, but recognizing that they were not slaves.

In 1861, the South entered the Civil War. In North Carolina, “free people of color” (meaning Indians) were conscripted to build Fort Fisher on Cape Fear to protect the Confederate port of Wilmington. Conscription was viewed as military service and therefore those who resisted or fled were to be shot for desertion.

The Lumbee resisted North Carolina’s attempts to conscript them and many hid in the swamps to avoid authorities. The North Carolina Home Guard retaliated by burning Lumbee homes and stealing their property. Thus began the Lowry War in which Henry Berry Lowry led the Lumbee along with some blacks and non-Indians in a fight against the Confederacy in Robeson County.

The Lumbee did not simply avoid conscription officers, but actively fought against them. In 1865, Henry Berry Lowry killed a recruitment officer who had killed several of Lowry’s relatives. The North Carolina Home Guard then invaded the Lowry homestead, killing his father and his older brother. In response, Henry Berry Lowry and his followers raided the courthouse in Lumberton. They seized a large number of modern, breech-loading rifles destined for the local militia.

The little band then started a series of raids against upper class land owners. The band often showed up to plunder in the early evening and, posting a guard, would politely dine with their hosts before taking the goods.

In one incident, the band was ambushed by the local militia. When the band counterattacked, the militia fled. The band then stole the safe from the sheriff’s office and another one from a large store. They left both safes open and empty on the main street of Lumberton.  

In 1865, Henry Berry Lowry married Rhoda Strong. In the midst of the wedding feast, the local militia invaded and Lowry was taken prisoner. However, he soon escaped from jail, enhancing the legend of his invincibility. Among local people, particularly Indians, Lowry was seen as a a shape-changer; a culture hero who could not only change his own shape, as legends and contemporary accounts illustrate, but who changed the shape of a whole people.

The Lowry War ended in 1872 when Henry Berry Lowry disappeared and what was left of his group disbanded. Following his disappearance, Henry Berry Lowry was rumored to have been seen in New Mexico. Other rumors had him accidently shooting himself with the implication that no one else had the power to kill him.

One of the tangible legacies of the Lowry War was official acknowledgement that the Lumbee were Indians. Southern culture was-and still is-biracial: it sees only two races, white and black. Southern culture has had difficulty with the idea that “people of color” could wage a war for more than a decade. Therefore, North Carolinians preferred to regard the conflict as an Indian War and its protagonists as Native.

Indians & Race in the South After the Civil War

Following the Civil War, attitudes regarding race in the South hardened. Reinforced by pseudo-scientific reports that claimed that Whites were a superior race, and by religious claims that Whites had been chosen by God to have dominion over others, the Southern states passed laws regarding miscegenation and other forms of racial mixing (including segregated schooling, housing, and health care). Race functioned to rationalize thoughts and behavior; to explain both human behavior and social status as being innate.  

As a biracial South developed, the Indians were placed in a difficult position. Many had been slave owners prior to the Civil War and had attitudes toward African Americans that were similar to Southern Americans. On the other hand, the Southern Americans viewed the world as having only two kinds of people: Whites and Others (including African-Americans, Coloreds, and Indians). Thus in the eyes of many non-Indians, Indians in the South were the same as African-Americans: they were an inferior race and were to be segregated from White Americans. The greatest challenge faced by the Native people who remained in the South was that racism distinguished only between black and white. The dominant white society often refused to acknowledge any distinction among ‘people of color’ and placed African Americans and Native Americans in the same category. This biracial obsession denied the distinct cultures, histories, and problems of Native people.

The concept of Indians as a distinct race is neither an Indian concept nor an ancient European one. Indians were originally seen by Europeans not as racial inferiors but as people in a less developed state of culture, not unlike English peasants before the Romans arrived. When the Creek first came into contact with Europeans and for several generations afterward, they had no concept of race. Any child of a Creek mother was also Creek, sharing her town and clan affiliations.

Many Southern Americans strongly believed (and some still continue to believe) that all Indians had voluntarily left the South and relocated to Oklahoma. Therefore, anyone who claimed to be Indian was obviously a fraud, perhaps a Black trying to pass as non-Black. Therefore, it was easy to dismiss claims of Indianness and to assign these people to the inferior legal status of “colored.”

The American federal government also reinforced the concepts of race which had been reported by some of the pseudo-scientific studies of the nineteenth century. In order to determine who was Indian, the federal government adopted and promoted the idea of blood quantum. According to the blood quantum theory, the amount of ‘blood’ a person possesses from a particular race determines the degree to which that person resembles and behaves like other members of that race.

Blood quantum is based on the idea that race, and therefore behavior, is somehow carried in the blood, and that an Indian who has some European “blood” would be superior to a “full-blood” Indian. From the viewpoint of the federal government, a person with less than one-half or one-quarter Indian “blood” could be considered non-Indian. However, the social rules regarding miscegenation clearly indicate that a single drop of black blood made the individual black.  

In the century following the Civil War, Indian people in the Southeast had to fight to carve out for themselves an identity that retained their Indian culture in an environment that denied this heritage. In Mississippi, for example, the Choctaw refused to be lumped with the black community and they constantly sought to assert their separate Indian identity. Among the Mississippi Choctaw, native dress, language, dances, music, games, and crafts have had an important function as symbols of a distinct ethnic identity, and this function has served to foster their survival.

Light skinned vs. Dark skinned

I am a college student and I am trying to work on my final essay in my Comp II class.

I am trying to find opinions from Native People on how, if any, differences exist between light skinned natives and dark skinned natives.

I would great appreciate your thoughts and opinions on this topic that I may use.

Do you find that dark skinned Natives look differently upon light skinned Natives?  Is so, in what way (and vica versa).

Thank you for your help and thoughts!

DJ McClure