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IREHR has previously examined the Tea Party movement’s anti-immigrant nativism and documented the presence of racists, anti-Semites and militia advocates in its ranks. This article documents the intersection between so-called property rights groups and Tea Party racism, and analyzes the threat the movement poses to the sovereignty of Indian nations, their resource rights and economic development.

Tea Parties, Property Rights and Anti-Indianism in the Klamath River Basin

By Chuck Tanner

Chuck Tanner is an IREHR Advisory Board Member and Research Director of Borderlands Research and Education. Borderlands is dedicated to using strategic research and education to support indigenous treaty rights and sovereignty.

An accord known as the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), aimed at settling long-standing conflicts over resource and water rights between Indian Nations, farmers, environmentalists and dams in the Klamath River Basin, has been derailed by Tea Party Patriots members in that area, according to a story in the July 18 edition of the New York Times.1 An IREHR investigation, however, has found that a combination of Tea Party groups, anti-Indian sentiment and “property rights” groups have combined to make a just solution to this dispute difficult. To understand the significance of this story, however, we begin not with the Tea Party but with the Klamath River Basin itself.

The Klamath River Basin and the Destruction of Tribal Fisheries

The Klamath River is the third largest river on the West Coast, stretching some 263 miles from its headwaters in Southern Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake to south of Crescent City, California. Eight federally recognized tribes call the Klamath Basin their homelands–the Klamath Tribes (Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin) in the Upper Klamath Basin, and, in the Lower Klamath, the Hoopa Valley, Yurok and Karuk Tribes, Resighini Rancheria and Quartz Valley Indian Community. Since time immemorial these tribes hunted, fished and gathered in the Klamath River watershed. Several species of sucker fish are economically and culturally important to Upper Klamath tribes, while salmonids are fished the length of the River.

The roots of the current conflict lie in the pattern of white settlement of the region that trampled indigenous natural resources and rights underfoot. The Bureau of Reclamations’ Klamath Project, began in 1905 and eventually irrigated some 200,000 acres of arid lands in Oregon and California. PacificCorp, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Mid American Energy, and its hydroelectric dams and agricultural and other development also decimated tribal fisheries.2 By the 1990s in the Klamath River, two species of sucker fish as well as coho salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A 2002 die-off of some 30,000 fish in the river dramatized the scale of the problem.3 The Klamath and Quartz Valley Tribes both faced termination under separate Congressional acts in the 1950s. Though these laws were later rescinded, this added to the uphill struggle of Native peoples in the region.4

In pursuit of differing ends, tribes, farmers, environmentalists, PacificCorp, and government agencies have engaged in lawsuits, adjudication, and administrative and legislative maneuvering over tribal fishing and water rights, irrigation contracts, and the application of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and Federal Power Act.

Complicating the farmers’ claims to the water, most of the Klamath Basin tribes have federally-recognized fishing rights, while the Klamath, Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes have water rights senior to those of the irrigation districts under principles of western water law, and a combination of treaties, executive actions and legislation. Federal agencies have “moral obligations of the highest responsibility” to uphold tribal water and fishing rights, according to court decisions. 5

To settle this otherwise intractable conflict, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and related Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) were proposed as potential solutions. Signing an agreement in February 2012 were the Karuk, Klamath and Yurok tribes, the Department of Interior and National Marine Fisheries Service, state agencies, two county governments, irrigation districts, water users and commercial and recreational fishing groups. 6

The KBRA outlines a plan for fisheries restoration and reintroduction, and includes provisions for parceling water between in-stream fish and irrigation. The Hydroelectric Agreement would develop a plan to remove four dams on the Klamath River and lead to a determination on removal by the Secretary of the Interior.7 Both agreements depend on Congressional funding to move forward. Legislation to do so was referred to U.S. House and Senate Committees in 2011. It may now be completely stuck.8

Signatory tribes hailed the agreement as a path toward dam removal and fisheries restoration.9 The Hoopa Valley, Quartz Valley and Resighini tribes, however, did not sign. They argued that the agreements undermine priority tribal water rights and the Endangered Species Act. They argued that dam removal would be best achieved under Federal Power Act relicensing because the dams are in violation of the Clean Water Act. 10 IREHR does not favor one group of tribes over another in this dispute, but intends to expose the anti-Indian politics at work in this situation.

Enter the Tea Party: Property Rights, Community Wrongs

Given the size of the federal appropriations sought for Klamath Basin agreements ($1 billion for the first ten years of restoration), and the opposition of some tribes, the Klamath Tea Party Patriots probably did not alone and all by themselves prevent a stable agreement. They did, however, play an out-sized role. A Tea Party insurgency has reshaped the political landscape in the Klamath Basin. And Tea Party and allied property rights groups oppose these agreements (for reasons starkly different than the non-signing tribes), and seek policies that would displace tribal rights in the Klamath Basin in favor of irrigation and dams.

The Klamath Tea Party Patriots (KTPP), with 109 online members, is affiliated with the national Tea Party Patriots, and the national network’s founders Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler appeared at a Klamath Tea Party meeting in October 201011 12 13.

It appears as if the Tea Partiers’ roll in the May 2012 Republican Primary election for Klamath County Commission seats contributed to derailing the restoration act.

Tom Mallams, a self-proclaimed Klamath Tea Party Patriot member who opposes the KBRA, led the charge, defeating a 16 year incumbent in the primary.14 In addition, Republican Jim Bellet, who also opposed the Klamath Basin Restoration Act, defeated a first-term Commissioner. 15

Tom Mallams’ background is in resource and agriculture politics. In addition to claiming memberships in cattle and farming associations, Mallams is President of the Klamath Off-Project Water Users Association. 16 (He also claims he received an endorsement from the Oregon Right to Life PAC. 17 As president of the water users association, Mallams wrote,

“The dam removal and KBRA may have started out as a possible solution to the water problems in the Klamath River Basin, but the final product…only takes water away from irrigated agriculture and gives it to fish. In my book, PEOPLE are more important than fish…What exactly are the Klamath Tribes giving up in return for all of the large concessions in the KBRA and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement?…Remember, they have no water right, only a claim…” 18

For Mallams, Klamath Basin Indian Nations are erased from the “fish” equation and have no water rights.

Other organizations combine Tea Party zealotry and “property rights” activism. Klamath Bucket Brigade Secretary Shirley Kerns, who supported Bellet in the county commission primary, is also an online member of the Klamath Tea Party Patriots. 19 The bucket group opposes both the restoration act and the electro-power agreements, because they supposedly “represent a minority of special interest groups” and “spread(s) the cost to every taxpayer.” 20 The group alleges that the restoration act will give “control of the ag drought plan to government agencies, tribes and environmental groups” and claims that more water is needed for irrigation. 21 The group further asserts that:

“Dam removal is a hoax, and aside from paying the ‘stakeholders’ billions, will not save the fish. How does the purchase of a 92,000 acre property for the Klamath Tribe save the fish?…The dams contribute to CLEANER WATER!!!…There is no conflict between agriculture and fishermen and native people except that which has been manufactured by environmental groups who are after the money and power”, 22

At the California end of the Klamath Basin, Jacqui Krizo of Tulelake, California also straddles the Tea Party and property rights movements. Krizo is both an online member of the Klamath Tea Party Patriots and an editor for Klamath Basin Crisis (KBC). This online forum touts itself as the voice of “Klamath Basin Farmers, Ranchers, Miners, Loggers, Indians and Fishermen.”23 The group’s website claims to be the initial the web home of the Klamath Water Users (KWUA), Tulelake Growers Association and the Klamath Bucket Bridage (KBB). 24 The KBC editor writes:

“it just happens that the local Tea Party has the same values regarding private property rights, the Constitution, and God, as our rural communities who oppose being controlled by national and international agencies and ecoterrorist groups.” 25

The Klamath crisis editor has railed that participants in the restoration act negotiations were “chosen by Interior” if they “supported giving land to a tribe that previously sold that land.” Elsewhere, the group blames tribes and environmental groups for the 2002 fish kill. Similarly it claims that the Endangered Species Act gives the government an “excuse to take our land and water.” 26 Apparently, in this case the “our” does not include tribes whose fisheries are supported by the ESA listing of sucker fish and coho salmon.

Klamath Basin Crisis represents the area property rights movement’s most direct known link to radical anti-Indianism. A page on the group’s webpage titled “Indians” includes a link titled “Ask Elaine,” referring to none other than longtime anti-Indian leader Elaine Willman. Willman is the former chair of the anti-Indian Citizens Equal Rights Alliance and a current Hobart, Wisconsin administrator. In an article posted on the KBC website, Willman wildly asserts that “tribalism, collectivism − federal Indian policy and extreme multiculturalism” have “relegated U.S. taxpayers as muzzled, indentured servants.”27 Elsewhere, Willman claims it is a “lie” and “myth” that “(Indians) were here first,” and writes,

“The tiresome myth that inherent tribal sovereignty is pre-Constitutional needs a little sunshine. This misplaced theory has unfortunately succeeded a bit too often. It’s my belief that anything ‘pre-Constitutional in this country was in fact, nullified by the U.S. Constitution.” 28

Willman has also spoken at a meeting of the Mille Lacs County Tea Party in Minnesota. 29

Along the same lines, KTPP online member Earl Wessel joined KBB Vice President/Treasurer Barbara Ambers in signing a petition promoted by the Lebanon, Oregon-based Give Us Our Land Back. The petition calls for,

“The U.S. congress to return sovereign control, full jurisdiction, and eminent domain of all Federal Lands within Oregon’s boundaries to the Chartered Counties of the sovereign State of Oregon, with the exception of military bases and armories, naval yards, Federal Buildings, and properties purchased by the Federal Government with the consent of the Oregon State Legislature; and to declare that the power of the Federal government over those lands, as property, shall cease.”30

Give Us Our Land Back makes no exception for lands held in trust for Indian tribes by the federal government. The group’s vision would place control of federal lands in Klamath County in the hands of a Tea Party-aligned County Commission.

In conclusion, the Klamath Tea Party Patriots and allied property rights groups are promoting ends that would continue the destruction of tribal resources in the Klamath River Basin.


1. Yardley, William. Tea Party Blocks Pact to Restore a West Coast River. New York Times. July 18, 2012.

2. Utility and Trade Commission. MidAmerican Energy completes purchase of PacifiCorp. Downloaded July 26, 2012.

3. McHenry, Matthew G. 2003. Comment: The Worst of Times: A Tale of Two Fishes in the Klamath Basin. Environmental Law. 33:1019; PacificCorp. Klamath River. Downloaded July 23, 2012.

4. Schlosser, Thomas P. 2011. Dewatering Trust Responsibility: The New Klamath River Hydroelectric and Restoration Agreements. Washington Journal of Environmental Law and Policy. 1(1):42-77.

5. For a detailed discussion of the legal issues involved in the Klamath River case, including analysis of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, see Schlosser, Thomas P. 2011. Dewatering Trust Responsibility: The New Klamath River Hydroelectric and Restoration Agreements. Washington Journal of Environmental Law and Policy. 1(1):42-77. The federally recognized priority date for Klamath water rights for fishing date from “time immemorial” under U.S. v Adair (723 F.2d 1394(9th Cir. 1984)). Other Klamath water rights have a priority date of 1864 under a treaty with the United States. The priority date for the Hoopa Valley tribe dates from an 1864 Congressional Act that created the Hoopa Valley Reservation. The priority date for the Yurok tribe dates from an 1855 presidential action created the Yurok Indian Reservation. All of these pre-date the initiation of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project in 1905, giving these tribes senior water rights under state water laws. Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe v. Morton. 354 F. Supp. 253 (D.D.C. 1972).

6. Klamath Basin Coordinating Council. Second Annual Report: Klamath Basin Settlement Agreements. March 30, 2012.

7.Ed Sheets Consulting. Summary of Klamath Basin Agreements. February 18, 2010.

8.Hansen, Megan. Tribes Ask for regulation of Klamath dams via Clean Water Act; some don’t agree dame relicensing process should begin. The Eureka Times-Standard.July 20, 2012; Thomas Library of Congress. Bill Summary & Status, 112th Congress (2011-2012), HR. 3398. Downloaded July 24, 2012; Thomas Library of Congress. Bill Summary & Status, 112th Congress (2011-2012). S.1851. Downloaded July 24, 2012.

9. Klamath Tribes of Oregon. Press Release. Klamath Tribes Historic Vote Passes Overwhelmingly. January 19, 2010; Karuk Tribe.; Yurok Tribe. Dam Removal Moving Closer. Yurok Today. 2010.

10. Resighini Rancheria. Downloaded July 24, 2012; Hoopa Valley Tribal Fisheries. Downloaded July 24, 2012.

11. Klamath Tea Party Patriots. Downloaded July 14, 2012.

12. Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Tea Party Nationalism. Fall 2010.

13. Klamath Tea Party Patriots. All Members. Downloaded July 25, 2012.

14. Aschbrenner. Tom Mallams beats Al Switzer. Herald and News. May 16, 2012.

15. Bellet for Klamath County Commissioner. Jim’s Remarks. Downloaded July 24, 2012 .; Aschbrenner, Joel. Election Impact: (Voters) got tired of seeing all the promlems and no solutions. Herald and News. June 2, 2012. Downloaded July 24, 2012.

16. Citizens Protecting Rural Oregon. News Release. February 5, 2011. Downloaded July 24, 2012; Klamath Off-Project Water users Association. Klamath Overview Report comments/questions. February 5, 2012. Downloaded July 24, 2012.

17. Vote Tom Mallams 2012. Endorsements. Downloaded July 21, 2012.

18. Mallams, Tom. Klamath Off-Project Water users Association. Klamath Overview Report comments/questions. February 5, 2012. Downloaded July 24, 2012.

19. Klamath County Patriots. Shirley Kern’s Page. Downloaded July 24, 2012; Kerns, Shirley. Letter to the Editor. Herals and News. May 6, 2012.

20. Klamath Bucket Brigade. Downloaded July 21, 2012.

21. KBB’s claim is a distortion of the facts. Actually, the KBRA drought plan includes the three signatory tribes, the Upper Klamath Water Users Assocation, the Klamath Water and Power Agency, the Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge, Oregon Water Resources Department, the California Department of Fish and Game, and representatives of conservation and fishing groups. In addition, the plan prioritizes some 300,000 acre-feet of water per year for irrigation. Sheets Consulting. Summary of Klamath Basin Agreements. February 18, 2010. See also Schlosser, Thomas P. 2011, cited in footnote 4 for a critique of waters designated for irrigation under the KBRA.

22. Klamath Bucket Brigade. The Klamath Bucket Brigade’s Position on the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. Downloaded July 21, 2012.

23. Klamath Basin Crisis. About Us. Downloaded July 23, 2012.

24. Klamath Basin Crisis. About Us. Downloaded July 23, 2012.

25.Klamath Basin Crisis. Tea Party Blocks Pact to Restore a West Coast River. Downloaded July 22, 2012.

26. KBC Editor. Klamath Basin Crisis. Downloaded July 22, 2012. Krizo, Jacqui. Klamath Basin Science – 2004. AGLifeNW Magazine. Downloaded July 24, 2012.

27. Willman, Elaine. When in the Course of Human Events it Becomes Necessary…” July 4, 2006. Downloaded July 24, 2012.

28. Willman, Elaine. Coming out of the Political Fog. Downloaded March 24, 2012. Willman, Elaine. Response to Tom Wanamaker. Willman/Joe%20Sixpack.htm. Downloaded March 24, 2012.

29. Stottrup, Joel. CERA President Elaine Willman Speaks on Federal Indian Policy. Downloaded July 24, 2012.

30. Give Use Our Land Back. Petition to De-Federalize Oregon Lands and Return Public Land Ownership Rights to the Chartered Counties of Oregon. Downloaded July 21, 2012; Give Us Our Land Back. Petition Signers. Downloaded July 21, 2012; Klamath Bucket Brigade. Board of Trustees. Downloaded July 21, 2012. Klamath County Tea Party Patriots. Earl Wessel’s Page. Downloaded July 24, 2012.

Chuck Tanner

Author Chuck Tanner

Chuck Tanner is an Advisory Board member and researcher for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. He lives in Washington State where he researches and works to counter white nationalism and the anti-Indian and other far right social movements.

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