Remaking a people, restoring a watershed: Klamath tribal empowerment through natural resource activism, 1960-2014

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Natural resources management is a pressing issue for Native American nations and communities. More than ever before, tribal officials sit at the decision-making tables with federal and state officials

Natural resources management is a pressing issue for Native American nations and communities. More than ever before, tribal officials sit at the decision-making tables with federal and state officials as well as non-governmental natural resource stakeholders. This, however, has not always been the case. This dissertation focuses on tribal activism to demonstrate how and why tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and treaty rights protection are tied closely to contemporary environmental issues and natural resources management. With the Klamath Tribes of southern Oregon as a case study, this dissertation analyzes how a tribal nation garnered a political position in which it could both indirectly influence and directly orchestrate natural resource management within and outside of its sovereign boundaries. The Klamath Tribes experienced the devastating termination policy in the 1950s. Termination stripped them of their federal status as an Indian tribe, the government services offered to recognized tribes, and their 1.2-million-acre reservation. Despite this horrific event, the Klamaths emerged by the 2000s as leading natural resource stakeholders in the Klamath River Watershed, a region ten times larger than their former reservation. The Klamaths used tools, such as their treaty and water rights, and employed careful political, legal, and social tactics. For example, they litigated, appropriated science, participated in democratic national environmental policy processes, and developed a lexicon. They also negotiated and established alliances with non-governmental stakeholders in order to refocus watershed management toward a holistic approach that promoted ecological restoration.

This study applies spatial theory and an ethnohistorical approach to show how traditional values drove the Klamaths’ contemporary activism. From their perspective, healing the land would heal the people. The Klamaths’ history illuminates the active roles that tribes have had in the institutionalization of the federal self-determination policy as federal agencies resisted recognizing tribes and working with them in government-to-government relationships. Through their efforts to weave their interests into natural resource management with state, federal, and non-governmental stakeholders, the Klamaths took part in a much larger historical trend, the increased pluralization of American society.