Ruffey Rancheria faces fire as rival tribe questions legitimacy

A bill to restore federal recognition to the Ruffey Rancheria continues to generate controversy in California, with a rival tribe's study calling the measure "intellectually dishonest."

The Karuk Tribe commissioned the study, in which Stephen Dow Beckham, a retired history professor, claims the Ruffey Rancheria never existed as a sovereign entity. Though the federal government purchased land for the rancheria, no one -- not even Old Man Ruffey, the namesake of the rancheria -- ever lived there, the report claims.

“Basically, my research reveals that no one ever lived on Ruffey Rancheria, there was never a roll or list of members, and there was no government relationship between the United States and any group identifying as the Ruffey Rancheria,” Beckham said in a press release from the Karuk Tribe. “There is simply nothing to restore.”

The study marks another attempt to undermine the Ruffey Rancheria's legitimacy as H.R.3535, the Ruffey Rancheria Restoration Act, gains steam on Capitol Hill The bill was approved by the House Committee on Natural Resources on May 9 and is being prepped for consideration on the House floor, according to The Eureka Times-Standard.

“The Beckham Report is factually wrong,” Tahj Gomes, the chairman of the Ruffey Rancheria, told the paper. He added: “Beckham simply did not include the evidence that undermined the favored conclusion by his employer, the Karuk Tribe.”

Primary documents show a relationship indeed existed between the federal government and a group of Indians identified as "Etna and Ruffey's." In 1915, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs reported the purchase of 480 acres for the band.

Beckham does not dispute the acquisition, which he said took place in 1907, but instead cites other documents which state the land was purchased for the “Karok or Adatars Stock” Indians. "Karok" is another way of spelling Karuk and "Adatars" has been used as another name for the Karuk people, according to research by C. Hart Merriam, who studied a number of tribes in northern California.

Decades later, another primary document shows that 441 acres of the "Ruffeys Rancheria" were sold when Congress terminated the tribe's relationship with the United States, according to a notice published in the Federal Register on April 11, 1961.

Beckham does not dispute that termination occurred. According to his research, the descendants of Old Man Ruffey accepted title to the rancheria and subsequently sold all 441 acres to a non-Indian paper company that continues to own it today.

"The termination of the Ruffey Rancheria proceeded in 1959 with the involvement of only the three surviving grandchildren of Old Man Ruffey," Gomes said in written testimony on H.R.3535 in which he described Old Man Ruffey as one of the ancestral leaders of the tribe.

Tommy Ruffey, identified as "Tommy Ruffy" in a photo from the California state prison system, was one of the three children of Old Man Ruffey. Though he had no children, according to research by Stephen Dow Beckham, his siblings carried on the Ruffey line. Source: Ruffeys Rancheria: A History of Unoccupied Federal Fee Land at Etna, California, 1907-1960

The Karuk Tribe, however, has laid claim to Old Man Ruffey. He was the great-grandfather of Melbourne “Bud” Lester Smith, who was one of the oldest Karuk citizens when he passed away at the age of 100 in 2013.

"He remembers Ole Man Ruffy as a comforting and wise man that never scolded him," the tribe's fall 2013 newsletter states of Smith's relationship to his storied ancestor.

But other sources connect Old Man Ruffey to the Shasta, a neighboring people. Tahj Gomes, an attorney who serves as chairman of the present-day Ruffey Rancheria, was hailed as a promising young Shasta in the same book, Shasta Nation.

The publication features a 1920s-era photo of Old Man Ruffey aka Frank Ruffy, who "lived to be 115 and remembered the first white men to come to the valley," Indian Country Today reported.

Beckham's research shows Old Man Ruffey indeed lived a long life. Though his birth date of 1824 is in question, he would have been 106 years old when he passed away in 1930.

The study isn't the first time Beckham has disputed the legitimacy of a tribe based in California. He was hired by Butte County in hopes of undermining the Mechoopda Tribe during a drawn out land-into-trust battle.

He drafted two reports over the course of the process, which lasted more than a decade and resulted in two trips to a federal appeals court. The tribe emerged victorious in April, with the unanimous ruling confirming the ancestral and modern connections that Beckham attempted to dispute.

Beckham was hired by Sonoma County and Napa County as they fought federal recognition for the Mishewal Wappo Tribe, another victim of the termination era. A federal court later ruled that the tribe waited too long to file its lawsuit -- the decision did not mention any of Beckham's research.

Beckham retired in 2011 after a long career in education. He spent 34 years as a history professor at Lewis & Clark College in neighboring Oregon.

H.R.3535 has not yet been scheduled for floor action but is in line to be considered by the House Committee on Rules, The Eureka Times-Standard reported. That would be a key step before passage in the House.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), who serves as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. He has used his position to advance other federal recognition legislation.

"It's consistent with much of the policy we've done around here and serves right those Native communities," LaMalfa said earlier this month when the House Committee on Natural Resources approved another tribal recognition bill.

Read More on the Story:
Karuk Tribe-funded study: Ruffey Rancheria never existed (The Eureka Times-Standard July 21, 2018)
Karuk and descendants dispute rights to tribal land (KTVL July 20, 2018)
Federal bill to reinstate Siskiyou-area tribe draws fire (The Capitol Weekly July 5, 2018)

Karuk Tribe Documents:
Ruffeys Rancheria: A History of Unoccupied Federal Fee Land at Etna, California, 1907-1960 | Findings from Beckham Report | Press Release

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