November 12, 2022
Modoc Nation – New chief focused on moving forward
Author: Lee Juillerat
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, who died Oct. 14, and 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 area of Miami, Oklahoma, 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 Lava Beds National Monument.
During a telephone interview, Burkybile said the Modoc Nation’s goal is to improve private lands near 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, 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 recent 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 north of Lava Beds for a commercial bison herd. The tribe, according to its stewardship proposal, also is 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 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 also will 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 U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, along with other state and federal agencies and neighboring landowners to create opportunities for hunting and fishing and develop a historical tour route.