Since His Time Immemorial

A Eugene dentist and a UO alum plan to preserve story of Modoc War through documentary, memorial

Donald Dexter grew up under the watchful gaze of Kaitchkona Winema, his seventh generation ancestor. Her portrait hung in Dexter’s grandparents’ home on the Klamath Indian Reservation, where he was born and raised. 

Winema, later known as Toby Riddle, was a negotiator between the Modoc tribe and the U.S. Army during the Modoc War of 1872-73, when the Modoc people fought for their land on the border of Oregon and California, inflicting one of the worst battle defeats on the Army of any of the Indian wars. Dexter, of Modoc descent, always possessed an inherent understanding of his family’s involvement in the war. 

“People always go, ‘since time immemorial,’ we were here, we were on this land,” Dexter says. “But from my time immemorial, I was told that story.”

Dexter, a Eugene dentist, is creating a documentary about the Modoc War and its impacts on present-day Modoc people with the help of cinematographer and University of Oregon graduate Christelle Auzas. As part of the documentary, he plans to create a memorial for the Modoc warriors who were executed after the war. 

When he was younger, Dexter’s knowledge of the Modoc War remained largely within the context of his ancestry, and for most of his life, he had no desire to learn more. He says he once told his dental assistant, “I’m an Indian, why do I have to read about being an Indian? It’s like being a zebra, why do I have to read about being a zebra?” His assistant’s response was, “Well, if you were raised in the zoo, you probably would.’” 

“It was kind of profound, because in that essence, yeah, we were raised outside of our instinctive culture,” Dexter says. “It’s just amazing how much I didn’t know.”

During the past year, Dexter has expanded his knowledge of the Modoc War and researched its significance on a broader social scale. He says that uncovering more information about his people’s roots in California has helped him to further understand his Modoc identity.

“We were on these lands for 12 to 14,000 years in California. I’m a California Indian,” Dexter says. “That’s been such a huge epiphany.”

Dexter and Auzas point to “The Oregon Encyclopedia” for historical information. It says that in 1864, leaders of the Modoc, Klamath and Northern Paiute people signed a treaty with the U.S. that relinquished nearly 22 million acres of land in exchange for what became the Klamath Reservation. But Dexter says that due to animosity with the Klamath tribe, with whom they were forced to share the southern Oregon reservation, many of the Modoc people wanted to return to their homeland in southern Oregon and northern California. 

In 1865, around 170 Modoc people, including around 60 Modoc warriors, left the Klamath Reservation. They were led by Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack.

U.S. troops were dispatched in 1872 in an effort to return the Modoc people to the Klamath Reservation. After an initial fight in Oregon near Lost River, the Modocs retreated to the Lava Beds in northeastern California, a territory familiar to them and indomitable to the U.S. Army. The Army suffered a humiliating defeat on Jan. 17, 1873, when a group of fewer than 60 Modocs defeated a force six times its size, killing 12 and wounding 37. 

At this point, Secretary of War William Belknap declared a ceasefire and called for a negotiation of peace. Dexter’s ancestor Toby Riddle served as a Modoc interpreter at this time. 

During negotiations, eight Modoc warriors, including Kintpuash, killed Gen. E.R.S. Canby and Rev. Eleaser Thomas, believing this would cause U.S. troops to leave. Instead, the U.S. conquered the Modocs’ stronghold in the Lava Beds, and eventually defeated the Modoc people for good at the Battle of Dry Lake. 

One hundred and fifty-six Modoc captives were transported from California back to Fort Klamath. The rest were taken to a reservation in present-day Oklahoma, where a Modoc tribe still exists. Six Modoc warriors were tried in October 1873 for war crimes, predominantly the murder of Canby and Thomas. Kintpuash and three other Modocs were hanged. Their bodies are buried at Fort Klamath, which Dexter says is about 60 miles from where the war took place. Dexter’s intention is to memorialize their deaths, and in doing so, memorialize their story. 

In order to create the memorial, Dexter plans to harvest a rock from the Medicine Lake area, which is ancestral land to the Modoc. On the rock will be mounted two plaques, one facing east and one facing west. 

“The sun rises from the east on that plaque, it makes us remember what happened there,” Dexter says. “The sun sets to the west shining on that plaque, reminding us that we’re still here.”

Dexter initially intended to place the rock on the south side of the four gravestones in Fort Klamath. But though he received permission to do so from the Modoc and Klamath tribes, the Klamath County Museum has indefinitely delayed his request. He is now considering using his family cemetery, east of the reservation where the Modoc people who stayed behind settled. Dexter says he is surprised by the setback but not dissuaded.

“Klamath County has changed the arc of the story but has not denied the story,” Dexter writes in an email. “It’s added a chapter to the story, the element of the challenge and the struggle, but there’s a lot more to be told.”

Dexter is joined in his storytelling endeavor by Auzas. She was a patient of Dexter’s, and was at his office when he told her about the graves and the Modoc War. She knew the story was one worth sharing with a broader audience, and given that she was taking documentary classes at the time, wanted to offer her expertise. 

Of course, she couldn’t say anything right away, because dental tools were in her mouth. But when the appointment was over and they had a chance to swap ideas, Dexter was impressed by her sincere interest in the story and the project. The two have been a team ever since. 

In March, they began filming at the Lava Beds and visited the grave site. They plan to return to the area in September. 

After filming and performing the memorialization of the Modoc warriors, the documentary will move into interviews with war historians and community members in Oregon and possibly Oklahoma. These interviews will continue the oral tradition of the Modoc through peoples’ personal stories about their identity, cultural upbringing and understanding of the war.

Dexter and Auzas plan for the documentary to be about an hour and a half. They are seeking funding through GoFundMe and are applying for grants. The working title is Modoc: Endeavor to Persevere. 

Dexter hopes that the documentary will help the story of the Modoc reach a new audience, especially at a time when he believes people want to know more about untold aspects of the American story.

“I think there’s just a lot of interest and concern at this point in looking at our history. Not rewriting our history. Not condemning people for the sins of their fathers,” Dexter says. “But it’s simply a good time for recognition, reconciliation.”