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Alumni Spotlight: Blake Follis, ’13

History and sovereignty important for alumnus, citizen of Modoc Nation

Blake Follis at Native American 40 under 40 awards gala

From the School of Law Alumni Newsletter - Fall 2019

Blake Follis, ’13, had no problem telling the history of the Modoc Nation from memory. He started by going back to the time his ancestors were targeted for mass extinction by the first governor of California in 1851. From that time on, the Modoc, like other Native American tribes, not only fought for their lives, but to preserve their sovereignty. Originally from northern California and Oregon, they eventually regained their federal recognition in 1978, 105 years after being moved to Oklahoma.

Today, Follis strives to keep that history and sovereignty alive. He served as the Modoc Nation’s first attorney general from 2018-19. He now lives just north of Topeka and works in private practice. He spoke this month at Washburn University School of Law about the importance of tribal sovereignty.

“From 1978 to present day, our families and the citizens of our tribe have been collectively building and effectuating our own government and providing services,” he said. Those services include scholarships, housing grants, eldercare, and childcare. A casino, consumer lending, construction, and an information technology company help create economic boosts. “The big thing for us (tribes) is to continue to expand and try to innovate in different areas and diversify our economies just as much as any state government in the United States does.”

With California’s war being subsidized by the state and federal government against the California Native Americans in 1851 and beyond, the Modoc fought to protect themselves from bounty hunters while the United States government was trying to get them and other area tribes to sign treaties. To prevent more bloodshed the Modoc signed a treaty in 1864 that moved them to the homelands of the Klamath. A clash of cultures led to numerous occurrences of the Modoc leaving and returning to their homelands, and ultimately culminating with the Modoc War (1872-1873) waged by the state militias of California and Oregon and the United States. After the death of the only U.S. military general killed in a military campaign against Native Americans, the Modocs succumbed to the military might of the United States and were defeated. The Modocs who fought were put before a military tribunal. Four were executed and two sent to Alcatraz. The remaining Modocs – 153 of them designated as prisoners of war – were sent east for relocation, ultimately in northeast Oklahoma in 1873 where the government hoped they would assimilate to U.S. culture and systematically lose their identity.

In the 1950s, the federal government began terminating tribal federal recognition by promoting federal acts and policies to tribal citizens with a contingency of a lump sum payment in exchange for their land rights, discontinuance of federal support, subjugation of state taxation and jurisdiction, and the end to the recognition of their tribal sovereignty. Placed into a non-negotiable position, the tribes affected by the termination policies received payouts much lower than promised.

“So now, you've got a bunch of Indians with no federal recognition for their tribal government, and they can't ultimately call themselves Indians,” Follis said.

His great-grandmother and others kept alive the tribal government organization. Eventually, President John F. Kennedy ended the termination and worked toward self-determination for tribes. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed an act that recognized the Modoc Indian Tribe of Oklahoma. Follis’ grandfather, Bill Follis, has served as chief since that time.

“There's so much value in history and knowing your history, especially for tribes, and knowing what has historically impacted your present-day status,” Follis said.

Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Follis earned a political science degree at Oklahoma State University. When the recession of 2008 hit, he went back for a second degree, this time sociology, and then he looked into law school. After getting advice from his cousin, Margann Bennett, who worked at Washburn Law, he chose the school. Karla Whitaker, then the School of Law’s director of admissions, also was influential in his decision-making. The resulting legal education has helped him serve the Modoc Nation.

“Learning many of the research skills through law school helped open historical doors that I probably wouldn't have cared about before,” he said. “From being a law student, to becoming an attorney, and then having the great honor to work for my tribe and becoming the first attorney general for our nation, and using that political history and knowledge of my tribe to help effectuate different opportunities I think was the greatest thing.”

As attorney general, he successfully negotiated for lands within the Modoc Nation homelands that included a municipal airport. The Modoc Nation intends to work with the local communities of northern California and southern Oregon to develop the airport and bolster the economy, as well as create a multi-generational return for the Modoc Nation.

“Tribes are putting billions of dollars into a state economy that the state otherwise wouldn't have realized,” Follis said.

Follis said there are important reasons for tribes to enhance and utilize their sovereignty, but there are pitfalls for ones that do it solely for monetary reasons.

“It's very important to look at all of the consequences surrounding proposed financial opportunities, not just the opportunity itself, but the what-ifs. You have to vet those consequences out before you go jumping into those types of monetizing-your-sovereignty deals. And if you don't, then you run the full risk of losing not just the financial rewards of the opportunity, but something more important than that, and it's the impact to your sovereignty and how it will impact the sovereignty of the other 572 federally recognized tribes.”

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