Steber's latest: 'Buy the Chief a Cadillac' - Rick Steber's new novel on Klamath tribal termination based on his experience living on former reservation

September 26, 2003

By Lee Juillerat, regional editor  or 5410885-4421 or 800-275-0982

Herald and News

Klamath Falls, Oregon

To submit a Letter to the Editor:

It took 20 years to write, and a lifetime to research.

"Buy the Chief a Cadillac," a new historically-based novel by Rick Steber, represents a sharp turn in his writing career.

Steber, who was raised in the Chiloquin and Bonanza areas and now lives outside Prineville, is best known for writing an impressive list of non-fiction books, including "Buckaroo Heart" and "Rendezvous."

In his latest effort, Steber has ventured into historical fiction.

Set in the mythical town of Chewaucan [pronounced She - waa - can - an actual stream in the Klamath Basin that flows into the Sprague River], which mirrors Chiloquin, "Chief" offers an account of events -- some that occurred, others that might have -- when Klamath Indians received $43,000 as payments for the sale of reservation lands to the federal government in 1961. (I have found records that this payment was really the last of 7 different payments to tribal members. In all total, the Klamath Tribes received over 7 Million dollars for their tribal lands, but I have no idea what that would be in 2003 dollars. - Barb)

"It took me that long, 20 years, because I wanted to get it right," says Steber, who began writing in 1983. "It was real tough to write. I didn't want to feel like I wanted to placate the Indian side, but I didn't want to put the Indians down."

The 57-year-old Steber has been researching the book all his life. He lived on the former Klamath Reservation near Chiloquin from 1948 to 1957 until moving with his family to Bonanza.

"Out of all the kids I went to school with, only a handful are left," says Steber of his Chiloquin classmates. He recalls incidents where many Klamaths were killed by alcohol or dangerous driving, and often a combination of both.

"Where that line of truth and myth is, is interesting," admits Steber. "What I wanted this book to be is like looking through campfire smoke. Once in a while you get a real clear view. You decide what's fact, you decide what's fiction. The stories all have their roots in the truth."

Steber was a high school freshman when the payments were made. He heard stories and, even more, witnessed examples of how many suddenly wealthy Klamaths quickly parted with their small fortunes. Based on some estimates, the $43,000 in 1961 translates to about $500,000 in 2003 dollars.

"The biggest share of the money was squandered," says Steber, who remembers seeing shiny new cars parked in front of tacky homes, refrigerators and washing machines on the front porches of "shacks" that lacked electricity, and a Lincoln Continental used to pull a drag line across fields. [husband remembers, when he used to drive out to Weyerhaeuser's Camp 9, seeing lots of brand new cars wrecked along the highway between Klamath and Beatty -- and lots of cars abandoned that the Indians didn't take care of -- no water in the radiators or they didn't put in oil so the engines blew up] Some Indian minors, whose money was held in bank accounts, were charged $400 "administrative fees" when they withdrew from their savings accounts. [I worked for an attorney during college who was a trustee for several Indians -- what he did to them was criminal! He made them beg for their money, refuse, then come into me and tell me to charge their trust funds with huge administration fees just for talking to them for a few minutes. If I hadn't needed the job to finish college, I would have quit.]

"A lot of the stealing that was done was done legally, according to the white man's system," Steber said.

While sympathetic to Klamaths, Steber conscientiously attempts to show how termination affected non-Indians and, more significantly, how Klamaths sold out their land and culture for short-lived cash payments.

"In our contemporary history I don't think it's one of our shining moments, from the greed of one generation to sell out the future of other generations, to the greed of the white men who took the money, to the greed and dishonesty of the bankers and attorneys," says Steber.

"A big share of the blame goes to the federal government for not keeping its promises and ramming through this grand social experiment to force the Klamaths into white society. I really think if this (termination) had been successful, it would have been the blueprint for every tribe in America."

Steber hopes the book will document the events and effects of termination, and cause readers to question the values of reservations and the role of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"Do we want to keep Indians as wards of the federal system forever? Do we think the Indians are doing us a service by serving as our gambling provider?" he asks rhetorically, referring to Indian casinos.

"On the other hand, I think it's time for Indians to rise above where they are now, to take a page from Edison Chiloquin and go against what everybody else thinks is best."

The cover of "Chief" includes a photograph that Steber took of Chiloquin, the only Klamath who refused payment and eventually received title to ancestral lands along the Sprague River. The book is also dedicated to Chiloquin, who died last May.

"I knew him when he was a despicable drunk," remembers Steber of Chiloquin, who for several years was the town's self-described "town drunk" after returning a hero for his South Pacific military service during World War II. "I saw him in his worst days, and I saw him rise above it."

While visiting Chiloquin last spring, Steber discussed the book with him, and the possible controversy it might create.

"He told me, 'Rick, sometimes you just got to stand up for what you believe.' To the Tribes, Edison serves as a reminder of their own greed."

Steber expects, and hopes, that "Chief" will stir controversy.

"I keep waiting for the hammer to fall, and it hasn't. Everyone's been complimentary. I'm sure there are going to be some negatives comments coming."

Unusually, "Chief" is currently being sold only in the Klamath Basin and central Oregon. Its national release will be next year.

"I think people in this area ought to have the book first and be able to digest it and react," says Steber, who hopes "Buy the Chief a Cadillac" will stir emotions. "To me, the worst thing would be if it was just ignored."

Author Rick Steber hopes his new book stimulates discussion about tribal issues.