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Klamath Tribes chairman retires

Don Gentry talks about his time — more than 30 years — working on behalf of the Klamath Tribes
Lee JuilleratDon Gentry, who is stepping down as chairman of the Klamath Tribes Council, is looking forward to more time playing guitar.

KLAMATH FALLS — After spending more than three decades involved in Klamath Tribes matters, including the past nine years as chairman of the Klamath Tribes Council, Don Gentry is planning a lower profile.

Gentry, 67, who did not seek re-election as tribal chair, is turning over those duties to Clayton Dumont Jr., who was elected last month.

Before becoming tribal chairman, Gentry served as vice chairman. But his involvement with tribal matters dates back more than 25 years, including years as the Tribes’ natural resources specialist. He believes that background, along with lifelong interests as a hunter and fisherman, has provided him with a perspective that has made him a sometimes controversial advocate for tribal treaty rights, including ongoing disputes involving water issues.

“I have a lot of hands-on experience,” said Gentry, noting he also worked for the Forest Service and private contractors. As a natural resource specialist with the Tribes, he was involved in fish hatchery research, studying water flow measurements, tracking deer and other projects.

Gentry said his involvement reflects the interests his father, Gene, had in tribal affairs, including serving on the Tribal Council and participating in court cases about tribal treaty rights.

“Dad had us out hunting and fishing,” he added with a laugh, “being Indians you might say.”

Born in Klamath Falls, Gentry has lived in the Klamath Basin except for a period when his mother, Darlene, a non-native, lived in Northern California’s Mendocino County. He returned in 1969 to live with his father, a Klamath-Modoc.

“It was time,” he said of retiring from tribal leadership, explaining he and his wife of nearly 48 years, Mary, a Warm Springs Indian, “want to focus on family matters.” The couple have three children, Alicia, Aaron and Adria, who all live and work in the Klamath Basin, along with 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Gentry believes his time as tribal chairman has been successful. “It was a team effort. I consider myself a servant leader. I’m a pretty good spokesman for our people but it’s a team effort, working as a team with the tribal council and our staff.”

Brandi Hatcher, a member of the “team” as the Tribes’ treasurer, said, “I have worked with Don in different capacities during our tenure with the Klamath Tribes. It is a bittersweet time for the Klamath Tribes. Don is a very compassionate person, and very professional and keeps his demeanor in the most difficult of situations. It has been a pleasure working with him, even though we can all agree to disagree, and support the complex issues we have to deal with, we can always leave at the end of the day, with a smile, and no hard feelings.

“The past Tribal Council,” Hatcher noted, “has been able to navigate through a worldwide pandemic, a tremendous loss of tribal members and trying to help others in need, and stay the difficult course fighting for our treaty resources. We have all suffered the COVID-19 and Zoom fatigue; but have managed to keep a sense of humor, through teasing and laughing at each other. These are the best times for me to remember. I pray for the best for Don and his wife on their next journey through retirement.”

As tribal chair, Gentry has been the Tribes’ main spokesperson and advocate for always controversial water-related matters. He is a staunch defender of tribal treaty rights, noting the Tribes ceded nearly 20 million acres in the 1864 treaty.

“It was a government-to-government negotiation,” he said of the treaty, one that has been confirmed by a series of court cases. “We never gave up on adjudication, noting the Tribes supported the proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement that would have led to removal of dams on the Klamath River and settled several water rights issues. But he dismisses any chance for a second KBRA, “because we need that water for our resources.”

Gentry believes some people feel “we’re retaliating,” insisting, “we’re trying to protect our treaty rights. There’s limited water. Past management has set us up for these problems. … We are trying to protect the holistic rights of our people.”

Likewise, he believes increased demands for water for agriculture combined with increased populations and such “unintended consequences” as climate change, overgrazing and dams that prevent salmon from reaching the Klamath Basin are factors behind the ongoing, often bitterly heated disputes.

“People look at us (the Klamaths and other tribes) and think we’re the problem,” he said in obvious frustration. “I’m looking forward to a lot less stress,” he admitted of being involved in tribal leadership, adding, “I’ll be active with the general council … I’m still here. Until I die, I’ll be out there doing whatever I can.”

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.