Modocs are unique people among unique people 

A very interesting aspect of living next to northeast Oklahoma is the presence of nine federally recognized Native American tribes within just a two-county area.

Most of these tribes were relocated from east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River – with two exceptions. The Quapaw Tribe originally comes from the basic general area where the Arkansas River empties into the Mississippi, south of present-day Helena, Arkansas.

The other exception is unique in several ways, and I think their story is fascinating (though to be honest, I think all of the different tribes’ stories are). 

The Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma is the only federally recognized tribe in our area to hail from the Pacific Northwest. It is also the smallest official tribe in Oklahoma, with about 200 members. The Modocs partner with the Miami Tribe to run the Stables Casino in Miami, Okla., among other business ventures.

The Modoc people’s ancestral homeland was on the California/Oregon border, east of the Cascade mountain range. Pressured by encroaching American settlement, in 1864 the Modocs signed a treaty with the U.S. government to cede their lands and live on a reservation in Oregon with their traditional enemies, the Klamath people.

Conditions on the reservation were less than ideal, and a band of Modocs led by Kintpuash (or Keintpoos) – better known by his Anglicized name, Captain Jack – left the reservation. They were later forced to return, but finding the situation no better than before, they left again.

After the 1864 treaty was finally ratified by the U.S. Congress in 1870, the federal government demanded that Captain Jack’s band of Modocs return to the original reservation but they refused, insisting instead on a separate reservation of their own in the Lost River area of northern California.

Wes Franklin

Uncle Sam would not be defied, and in 1872 sent in the U.S. Army to capture the rebellious Modocs and bring them back to the existing Klamath reservation.

What resulted was the Modoc War. The Army committed more than 1,000 men to bringing in Captain Jack. The Modocs had less than 60 warriors. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Modocs were able to carry on a guerilla war for six months, a war that cost the lives of 45 soldiers, including U.S. Major General Edward Canby, who was assassinated during peace talks.

Although only six Modocs were killed in the war, they were ultimately forced to surrender. Captain Jack and three other Modoc leaders were tried for war crimes and hanged.

The surviving members of the band who were not imprisoned for their participation in the rebellion were not allowed back to the Klamath reservation in Oregon. Instead, they were loaded into railroad cattle cars and shipped east to what was then officially called Indian Territory, ultimately arriving in present-day Ottawa County, Okla.

The Indian agency was rife with corruption, and conditions were not very good for the Modocs. Initially, there were no public funds provided for their food, clothing, housing, and medical needs. In six years, the exiled Modoc people were reduced to 99 souls. By 1900, there were less than 50 on the official rolls.

However, for better or for worse, they survived by assimilation, adopting Anglo-American ways and customs, converting to the Quaker faith (the Quakers ran the Indian agency) and establishing a school for their children.

The Modoc Church and Cemetery, west of Seneca, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. In the cemetery are buried some of the original exiles from the Modoc War, including Captain Jack’s daughter, who died in 1874.

In 1880, formal tribal government ceased to exist, at least officially. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma was granted federal recognition. In 1909, the Modocs were allowed to return to the Oregon reservation if they so desired. Some left, but many remained in northeast Oklahoma, probably because most of them were born there and had never even seen the land of their ancestors in the Pacific Northwest.

Today, the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma includes descendants of only seven of the original 155 prisoners of war who came to Ottawa County in 1873. There are no full-blood Modocs alive today. Those Modocs who didn’t join in the rebellion, as well as those who later returned to Oregon, are now administratively combined with the Klamath tribe in Oregon.

Much of the traditional culture, language and customs of the Modoc people has been lost forever.

And that’s a shame.

(Wes Franklin can be reached at (417) 658-8443.)

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