As a member of the Klamath Tribes, Jeff Mitchell had long heard about the huge number of artifacts from his people’s heritage collected by the McLeod family in their rambling old house in Klamath Falls, Ore.
Last summer, as chairman of the tribe of 3,400 members based in Chiloquin, Ore., he heard from a local library that the collection was for sale.
The power of the collection hit him when he traveled to Washington state to examine some of the 7,644 baskets, tools of everyday life and artifacts from the Modoc War. He came across a drawing by an Army officer of the gallows at Fort Klamath where Spokane Ike, Mitchell’s great-great-great-grandfather, was hanged for stealing horses from the Army.
“It was an experience and feeling I have never had before,” Mitchell said. “Every person in the tribes will be affected by the collection, finding the names of their ancestors attached to the baskets, arrows and tools. I knew it was my job to bring this collection home.”
Now the tribes are in a race to raise $415,000 by July 31 to buy back the world’s largest collection of their cultural artifacts, and $85,000 more to pack it up and bring it home.
“This collection represents survival,” said Gordon Bettles, director of culture and heritage for the tribes. “When you can see and know what your ancestors did, it opens doors to the future.
“I have no doubts the collection will be returned, because our people are strong in their prayers and beliefs.”
The Klamath Tribes consist of the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin people, who once ranged over 23 million acres of marsh, mountains and high desert in southern Oregon and Northern California on the east side of the Cascades.
After ceding most of their land to the United States in 1864, they settled on a 1.3 million-acre reservation around Upper Klamath Lake that was mostly Klamath land.
The U.S. government failed to provide rations to the Modocs, and in 1870, Kintpuash, known as Captain Jack, and some followers bolted the reservation.
The Modoc War of 1872-1873 followed. About 80 people held out at a natural rock formation known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold in what is now the Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California. The Army captured Captain Jack and hanged him at Fort Klamath.
Timber from their reservation made the Klamath Tribes one of the wealthiest Indian groups in the nation until 1954, when the U.S. government turned their reservation into the Winema National Forest.
Restored to tribal status in 1986, but without any significant land base, the tribes have been struggling to regain their prosperity, and last summer opened a casino. But the income is far from enough to buy back the collection, Bettles said.
Cecile Thomas of Lynnwood, Wash., recalls as a child seeing the collection on visits to the home of her grandparents, Edith and Kenneth McLeod.
“The house was like a museum,” Thomas said. “I was almost a little afraid of it.”
Her grandparents had meticulously documented the origins of each piece, right down to the name of the women who wove the baskets from tule twine and decorated them with porcupine quills dyed yellow with wolf moss.
“So often, this art’s anonymous,” said Romona Morris, executive director of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, who spent a week appraising the collection. “It adds to the idea that these were made by real human people.”
While going through the collection, Morris said she felt as if she were sitting in a Klamath village and could hear the pounding of stone metates grinding wocus seeds around her.
The McLeods added to their own work with the purchase of artifacts collected in the 1870s by Pennsylvania banker Amos Gottschall, who exhibited some of the baskets at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago.
Gottschall’s collection included rifles, bows and arrows cached by Modoc warriors after the war and Army cannon balls still loaded with black powder.
The McLeods died in the 1960s, and their collection was loaned to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. For the past 11 years, it has been lying around in boxes in Thomas’ mother’s recreation room outside Seattle.
“We didn’t have the room for it,” Thomas said. “My mother didn’t either. It’s so huge.”
When her mother was dying of cancer a year ago, she said she would like to see the collection displayed “in the proper place” in the family’s name. After her death, Thomas, her sister, Deanna Toft of Everett, Wash., and their cousin, Heidi Williams of Mobile, Ala., arranged to contact museums in hopes of selling the collection.
The Shaw Historical Library in Klamath Falls told Mitchell, and with the help of Indian art dealer Arnold Troeh of La Conner, Wash., the tribes reached an agreement with the family to buy the collection.
“I just couldn’t be happier,” Thomas said. “It’s going back to the people who made it.”
Tom Hudson, a strategic planner from Moscow, Idaho, helped the Nez Perce raise $608,100 in 1996 to buy back artifacts, and has signed on to help the Klamath Tribes. They already have raised nearly $330,000, including a $187,500 challenge grant from Klamath Falls wood products manufacturer and resort developer JELD-WEN Inc.’s charitable foundation. JELD-WEN has been working with the tribes to avoid disturbing sacred sites on Pelican Butte where the company plans to build a ski resort.
“Here is the one and only opportunity for the tribes to get the collection,” Hudson said. “It really is not an issue about museum artifacts. This is really about the unique culture of this ancient people.”
Much of that culture was lost when the government forced the tribes’ children to attend boarding schools far from home, where they were beaten for speaking their own language. Parents could not pass on their skills to their children.
Bringing home the collection will give the Klamath Tribes a strength that the New People have always been able to tap by touring the museums and historic sites of their ancestors in Europe, Bettles said. A new cultural center will be built to house the artifacts for all to study.
“I see the collection as addressing the problems that were created 100 years ago that we are dealing with now,” Bettles said. “When you look at those problems and deal with them, then you can start healing. This is an opportunity for the community to start healing itself.”