Don Gentry, New tribal chairman represents diversity

Posted by Renee Magyar on May 20, 2013

The Klamath Tribes urge peace and nonviolence during a challenging time of water adjudication.

Don Gentry, 2010

By Devan Schwartz, Herald & News Staff Reporter

Allow him to reintroduce himself: His name is Don Gentry and he's the new chairman of the Klamath Tribes.

Gentry plans to maintain cultural traditions while emphasizing positive roles for tribal members in the larger community.

"As the Klamath Tribes prosper, the community prospers, and vice versa," the new chairman said in an interview with the Herald and News.

Tribal vice-chairman since 2010, Gentry takes over for single-term chairman Gary Frost. Gentry previously worked in the natural resources division, where he served as a liaison between the tribes and the U.S. Forest Service - an agency that also was his former employer.

Gentry described a contentious relationship with the Forest Service getting smoothed out over the years, and a growing ethos of collaboration and cooperation between tribes, federal agencies and local non-native residents.

Guided by tribal history and an eye toward a sustainable future, Gentry begins to lead the Klamath Tribes at a difficult and important time in the region.

And though he is the head of the tribal government, Gentry plans to represent a diversity of views found within the 3,668 members of the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin peoples.

Turbulent water rights

A particularly salient, sensitive issue in the Klamath Basin is the recent arrival of water adjudication.

The legal basis for water rights, which took decades to resolve, places the Klamath Tribes as "first in time, first in right." Senior tribal rights could lead to local water users, likely in the Upper Klamath Basin, getting shut off for the first time.

Gentry and Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Greg Addington have indicated adjudication establishes winners and users - and in a drought year, this could play out between many involved parties.

Gentry said a protracted adjudication process has allowed excessive water use to proliferate in the Klamath Basin.

"We just don't have enough water for everybody," Gentry said.

This may be a bitter pill for junior water users to swallow, though the chairman's clear message is that tribal rights should be respected like other property rights.

And with streams Gentry characterizes as severely degraded, he seeks ways to restore tribal fisheries and establish sustainable agriculture.

"It's definitely going to be a battle," Gentry said about the final legal stage of water adjudication, now in the hands of Cameron Wogan, presiding judge of the Klamath County courts.

"It could take five years or longer," he added.

Yet when all is said and done, the chairman maintains tribal rights should be protected just like the U.S. Constitution.

The importance of tribal history

Gentry said the Klamath Tribes' contemporary rights, their successes and struggles reverberate a difficult history that includes a former reservation, and federal termination.

"The three neighboring tribes that made up the Klamath Tribes were gathered onto a reservation created on Klamath land under an 1864 treaty that gave the U.S. government title to vast areas of Southeastern Oregon and Northeastern California," wrote Roberta Ulrich in her book, 'American Indian Nations from Termination to Restoration.'

Ulrich describes decades of negotiations and hearings that culminated in the Klamath Tribe's termination in 1954. The decision's merits were questionable, even by the government's own reporting, and many tribal members did not vote on the decision.

Cash payouts to tribal members proved to be unsustainable income sources; Ulrich writes that nearly 40 percent had lost all their money within four years.

In a visit with the Herald and News editorial board, Gentry described how Klamath Indians were often cheated and tricked by an economic system they were unfamiliar with. Some signed over lands or inflated sums to settle bills at local stores. Others were swindled by lawyers and accountants.

Economic impacts aside, the tribal chairman said a deeper loss was cultural identity, the absence of which can lead to social problems such as depression, alcoholism and domestic violence.

"History hasn't shown a lot of our young people that we are important. We don't feel as honored and recognized as would've been helpful," Gentry said. "There have been really horrendous things that have happened to us as a people."

Over the 25 years following termination, the tribe fought to have recognition reinstated. It was finally successful in 1986, and although its status as a federally recognized tribe was reinstated, the government did not return its land.

In light of diminished cultural representation, the tribes plan to build a living culture center. The center would include a museum and facilitate tribal language instruction. Plans still need to be finalized, though Gentry said property has been purchased adjacent to the Kla-Mo-Ya Casino.

Gentry observed severely negative emotional and social impacts attributable to the 2001 water shut-off in the Klamath Basin. As tribal members also had lost their lands and their identity, the chairman expressed his empathy with those farmers and ranchers.

When dams blocked the passage of salmon to the Upper Klamath Basin in 1918, Gentry said the tribes lost their subsistence and their way of life. "Salmon are in our language and in our culture," he said.

"Looking at our history of loss, it's hard not to get emotional, but you can get to a place of understanding if you've suffered loss."

Read the original article here.