As the Klamath Tribes continue to seek public support for the return of a reservation, Tribal attorney Carl Ullman made it clear the gloves are now off.
Speaking at the ninth annual Environmental Justice Conference, held in Eugene Jan. 24, Ullman painted a picture of numerous racist acts that were supported by local Klamath Basin businesses and community leaders as he described the incident in December 2001 when three men shot at signs and yelled suckerfish slurs at Indian youths in Chiloquin.
The men, none of whom had prior criminal records, all pled guilty to felony charges in Klamath County Circuit Court in 2002.
As despicable — and stupid — as those acts were, Ullman told his audience the incident was the result of a community mind-set that began when a "highly placed public official" spoke to farmers two days after they were told their water deliveries would be curtailed.
Ullman never mentioned the official by name, but it was clear he was referring to Sen. Gordon Smith's visit to Klamath Falls on April 8, 2001.
Smith's speech initiated a devaluing process of suckers, Ullman said, which lead to a devaluing of the Indian people who depended on the fish.
"The tone had been set," Ullman said.
"The fish themselves were now seen to be a threat to the agricultural water supply," Ullman said. "That really drove the situation.
"The response in the community was not one of recognizing or acknowledging the underlying problem in the Basin," Ullman said. "It was one of open defiance."
That defiance took on community-wide dimensions, Ullman told his audience.
"Throughout the summer of 2001, Indian people in the Klamath Basin received either no service or pointedly slow service at a lot of restaurants and stores in Klamath Falls," Ullman said.
Called in by Klamath County District Attorney Ed Caleb, a federal agency expert in community mediation of racial tensions found no evidence of these anecdotal incidents. A study released by Oregon State University in 2002 alluded to similar incidents yet did not identify either the accusers nor the businesses that allegedly denied service.
Ullman did not mention either Caleb's action nor the OSU report.
Ullman did state the actions of the three men were connected to the decision to withhold full water deliveries to the Basin.
"Three non-Indian men from the predominately non-Indian town of Bonanza came up to Chiloquin armed with shotguns and rifles," Ullman told his rapt audience. "They drove through Chiloquin shooting their guns, racing their engine, and harassing Indian kids in their own front yards, calling them names.
"These were clearly a set of behaviors that stemmed from the water crisis that summer," Ullman said. "This odious behavior was not really condemned by anyone in the Klamath Basin, except of course by the Indian people."
Ullman added that Caleb and Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger worked very closely with the Tribes to investigate and convict the three men.
Klamath County Commissioner John Elliot expressed disappointment at the timing of Ullman's remarks.
"All rational people condemn violence," Elliot said Tuesday. "The actions of those three were reprehensible, but I would kindly ask Mr. Ullman this question.
"Are we going to judge an entire race by the reprehensible acts of a few?"
Elliot said he publicly answered the Tribal claims of racism when they arose in 2001, and saw no positives in Ullman's comments.
"For Mr. Ullman to continue to say these things serves no purpose," Elliot said. "Disagreement is not racism, and since 2001 the county and the Tribes have taken great strides in several areas, including transportation and health care."
Klamath Water Users Association President Steve Kandra was also stung by Ullman's statements, yet said he would take a pragmatic stance.
Kandra explained that KWUA is currently holding "productive" talks with the Tribes as the 2004 irrigation season approaches, and said the dialogue would continue.
"It is unfortunate that these issues are brought up in this way, because they are divisive and unproductive," Kandra said. "These issues are sensitive, and we want to continue the conversations in a positive way."
Kandra said he is encouraged about the level of cooperation between federal agencies and the relevant departments in both California and Oregon on meeting the demands on water supply in the Basin.
"The atmosphere in California is a lot different now than it was a year ago, and (Oregon Governor Ted) Kulongoski has been much more engaged than his predecessor," Kandra said. "Water managers are working hard to come up with creative ways to deal with all the demands."
Ullman did not share Kandra's optimism."The community's ability to deal with instances like this is quite likely to be tested again, and especially this year," Ullman said. "Water forecasts are, once again, grim."
Ullman's Speech - www.PhilospherSeed.org/native_american