In the high, dry forests of southern Oregon, along the rivers that flow swift and cold, the history of the American West is being spun out and retold in a story of land and water, equity and justice.
At issue are nearly 700,000 acres of former reservation land - native-American territory lost to broken treaties and a federal policy of "termination," the unilateral disbanding of tribes in order to force assimilation.
The Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yahooskin Band of Snake Indians, collectively known as the Klamath Tribes, have formally begun what will undoubtedly be a long political process of trying to get back the land. Their lengthy report on why and how this should be done was submitted last week to the United States Department of the Interior.
The tribes say it's a matter of justice, and they add that native Americans are more likely than others to restore and take care of environmentally sensitive areas that have been damaged by logging, grazing, mining, and water diversions for farm irrigation.
"All we want now is the opportunity to take care of that land as we once did," says Lynn Schonchin, general manager of the tribes. "We want to build a community."
It may be an ambitious plan, but it is not without precedent.
In other parts of the country, federal agencies have begun to share and even turn over land-management responsibilities for national forests and other public lands to tribes. In some cases, this has meant expanding reservation boundaries. Examples include the Yakama Reservation in Washington, the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, and the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon.
But restoring the Klamaths' traditional land base - which is now part of the Winema and Fremont National Forests - is a far greater undertaking, with many political obstacles.
Nonnative landowners on the former tribal land worry about their future. Companies and developers oppose restrictions on resource extraction and recreational development.
And environmentalists, although they honor native Americans' tradition of land stewardship, are concerned that land given back to the tribes (as sovereign nations) might not be protected by such federal laws as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
"There's no disputing that the Indians have been given a rotten deal," says Wendell Wood, field representative here for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a private research and advocacy group. "But we don't think that public lands should be the currency for rectifying those wrongs."
Other environmentalists note that in some places - particularly Alaska - revenue-hungry native groups have been just as eager as corporations to clearcut tribal forests.
The issue generates strong feelings.
"I for one do not desire to see the [land] returned to the tribes, even if the current members vote to buy the land at today's current fair market value," says Jay Christensen, who has a woodworking business in Klamath Falls.
"The land is simply too valuable to the people of the United States as a multiple-use resource," Mr. Christensen asserted at a recent public hearing on the tribal plan. "In addition, giving the land to the tribes is simply another form of government welfare, which does not teach self-reliance to members of a proud native-American nation."
Here in Chiloquin, a town of about 800 people where the tribes are headquartered, the impression a visitor gets is more one of survival than pride. It's a poor place with few businesses and a rough exterior.
It wasn't always this way. Before European settlement, the tribes counted some 22 million acres as their homeland - a vast area stretching from Mt. Shasta in California to central Oregon. Under pressure from homesteaders and the US Cavalry, the tribes gave up all but about 2 million acres in return for the right to hunt, fish, and gather "in perpetuity," under the Treaty of 1864.
Encroachment by force and legislation further reduced their holdings to 880,000 acres. Still, the tribes here were among the most economically and socially successful native-American groups in the US.
That changed in 1954, when Congress passed a law "terminating" the tribe.
The philosophy behind termination was that Indians would do better if they became part of the dominant culture and economy. With little choice in the matter, most tribal members took the $43,000 buyout.
But lacking experience in a cash economy, few invested the money or started businesses. Within two decades, they were experiencing high rates of infant mortality, unemployment, and alcoholism. Chiloquin dropped to the lowest per-capita income of any city in the state.
"The decision was to take away from them the very thing that had made them economically viable," says Donald Wharton, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo., which represents the Klamath Tribes. "The result was fairly predictable - it was a disaster."
The tribal buyout had cost the federal government $220 million. But the land has realized at least twice that amount in revenues for corporations and Uncle Sam - most of it from logging.
At the same time, however, wildlife habitat was suffering. Several species of fish and animals here are now on the endangered species list. Others, such as the grizzly bear, wolf, and lynx, have long since disappeared.
Declaring the termination policy to have been "morally and legally unacceptable," President Richard Nixon in 1970 asked Congress to reverse the policy - which it did. In 1986, the Klamath Tribes were once again officially recognized.
Since then, the Klamaths have successfully reasserted their hunting, fishing, and water rights in court. A new tribal structure has meant some new jobs here. A small casino - far from any population center or interstate highway - has brought some employment but is struggling.
The tribes have also drafted an Economic Self Sufficiency Plan. Restoration of the land, which could provide timber, farming, and cattle ranching, as well as hunting and fishing endeavors, is a key component.
It may be years before the process is completed. The tribes have waited a long time already, and they're willing to go slowly in what would amount to a reversal of more than 150 years of history.
Says tribal Chairman Allen Foreman: "I have a dream that all the children from the entire [Klamath] basin will be able to realize the benefits from this."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society