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Modoc Nation: New chief focused on moving forwardModoc Nation: New chief focused on moving forward


  • For the first time since the Modoc Nation, formerly known as the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, was granted federal recognition as a tribe in 1973, the group has a new chief.

    Robert Burkybile III was elected the Modoc Nation’s Chief last month following the death of Bill Follis, 89, on Oct. 14. Follis had been the Modoc leader since the tribe was re-recognized. The Modoc Nation consists of relatives of Modocs who were removed to Oklahoma after the Modoc War 150 years ago.

    Burkybile, 36, has lived most of his life in the Miami, Okla., area where the Modoc Nation has its offices, casino and other operations. He said he hopes to continue the tribe’s efforts to improve and develop lands it has purchased in the far Northern California counties of Modoc and Siskiyou near the Lava Beds National Monument.

    During a telephone interview, Burkybile said the Modoc Nation’s goal is to improve private lands near the Lava Beds National Monument for a planned Modoc Nation Ranches bison range. He said it’s part of a larger effort to re-involve the tribe in the region, with a focus on the Tulelake Basin.

    “The real story is now we’re on a fresh start. We’re trying to focus forward,” Burkybile said, insisting the goal is to improve and develop the tribe’s California lands, which include about 1,200 acres at and near the Tulelake Airport, for conservation, cultural connection and economic development purposes.

    The Modoc Nation has been involved in various controversies, including its purchase of the Tulelake Airport, which is being contested by the Tule Lake Committee, a group of Japanese Americans whose families were incarcerated at the Tule Lake Segregation Center during World War II. The Tulelake Airport, which is actually in Newell, was built on a section of the segregation center.

    Other controversial actions include the removal of tribal members, including Cheewa James, a high-profile Modoc and author of books about the tribe and its history, who was later reinstated. Recently, hundreds of others claiming Modoc heritage were removed from tribal rolls following a contested election.

    The Modoc Nation has and continues to oppose efforts to have Lava Beds National Monument designated as a national park.

    Burkybile mostly declined comment on those issues, instead emphasizing goals of “rebuilding bridges, working on solutions, rebuilding trust and supporting the local (Tulelake Basin) economy.”

    He said the tribe’s primary goal for its far northern California lands is focused on rehabilitating about 1,600 acres of sagebrush range lands the tribe has purchased near north of Lava Beds for a commercial bison herd. The tribe, according to its stewardship proposal, is also hoping to buy another 700-plus-acres north of the existing tribal-owned property.

    Ken Sandusky, the tribe’s Klamath Falls-based resource and development director, is overseeing the efforts. The Modoc Nation Bison Range in northeastern Oklahoma, which has about 200 bison, sells 100 percent bison burgers, roasts, jerky, sausage and steaks.

    Before being elected chief, Burkybile served as the tribe’s second chief. He previously was the Modoc Nation’s financial services executive director, a member of the Modoc Gaming Authority and worked with the Tribal Buffalo County.

    Of becoming chief, he said efforts will also include the tribe’s Tulelake Basin holdings, explaining, “The California endeavor creates a chance for us to reestablish ancestral homelands along with providing a chance to improve the local economy for the benefit of the (Tulelake Basin) community and our tribal members.” His goals for those lands include “projects for conservation, cultural connection and economic development.”

    Burkybile and Sandusky said they hope future plans to develop a bison herd include working with the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, along with other state and federal agencies and neighboring land owners to create opportunities for hunting and fishing and to develop a historic tour route.

    Sandusky noted tribal-owned lands include Modoc War sites, areas of geologic significance and such features as windmills built by white settlers. He said the properties owned by the tribe, government and private land owners could be developed to create a historic tour route that would “tell the whole story” of early indigenous people and pioneers.

    Burkybile offered no specific plans for the Tulelake Airport, which the tribe previously purchased from the city of Tulelake. “We’ve run into a few obstacles,” he said, referring to ongoing court cases challenging whether the tribe can legally own a public airport. “Our idea is to keep it as it is,” he said of airport operations which are mostly used for crop dusting. “Our only goal is to expand what is already there.”

    In referring to the Tulelake Committee, which opposes tribal ownership because the airport was part of the WWII segregation center, Burkybile said of the incarceration, “That was a terrible thing. We are allies with them.”

    Burkybile said the Modocs economic development does not include supporting now-stalled efforts to have Lava Beds designated a national park. Designation supporters believe it would enhance the region’s economy by attracting more visitors and provide better opportunities to “tell the Modoc history.”

    “I don’t think designating it as a park is the right thing at all,” he said, expressing concerns that increased visitation could harm cultural resources. “The value of that (Lava Beds National Monument) is as a heritage site. A lot of tribal folks feel the impacts might not be the best thing.”

    Burkybile said his concerns were amplified during his initial visit to Lava Beds and neighboring lands. “The first time was like a religious experience,” he said of being at Lava Beds “I was there where my people come from. I love it out there.”

    Overall, Burkybile repeatedly emphasized his hopes to work with improving the regional community and collaborating with the Klamath Tribes. He and Sandusky said improving, restoring and developing tribal owned lands for wildlife bison is the immediate goal.

    “It’s really a sincere commitment to focus on solutions and positive outcomes. I’m seeing a commitment to relationship building. Our plans are just for economic development. We want to help the people of the Basin,” Sandusky said, noting the tribe has invested nearly $1 million in the past year to projects like the Modoc Nation Ranches. “Chief Rob brings leadership and a fresh perspective. We’re looking to the future.”

    “We have our sights set on the next generations and the generations that follow,” Burkybile said. “Let go of that old animosity and work together for finding solution, for a strong commitment to healing. Hopefully people will look at what is happening now.”



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