Judge Owen Panner and the Warm Springs Tribe

by Dennis C. Karnopp

Dennis C. Karnopp is a retired partner in the Karnopp Petersen law firm, which is the successor to the firm founded by Owen Panner in 1950.  From 1967 until his retirement in 2017, Mr. Karnopp worked with and succeeded Judge Panner as Warm Springs Tribal Attorney

The late Judge Owen Panner’s career in private practice is best known for his long and successful representation of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon.  His relationship with the Tribe began shortly after he moved to Bend from Oklahoma in 1949. Before Owen could take the Oregon bar and practice law, he was a car salesman, and sold Chevys, Buicks, and GMC trucks to tribal members from the nearby Warm Springs Reservation.  He developed friendly relationships with many of his Indian customers, some of whom had family ties to Owen’s native Oklahoma. “I loved selling cars.  It was a real thrill,” he said.  Those relationships with Warm Springs tribal members opened the door a few years later to Owen becoming their attorney.

In 1954, the Warm Springs Tribe decided to hire a new attorney.  Some of the tribal leaders knew and respected Owen from his days as a car salesman and they asked him to consider becoming their attorney.  The fact that Owen was from Oklahoma and had worked with and played golf with Indians in Oklahoma helped him build a good relationship with the Warm Springs tribal members. 

Dennis Karnopp with his colleague and friend, Judge Owen Panner. Photo courtesy of Karnopp Petersen LLP.

Owen was hired as Warm Springs tribal attorney in 1955. One of Owen’s first tribal meetings was a gathering of the entire membership to discuss and decide what to do with the $4 million dollars the Tribe was to receive from the U.S. government for the flooding of Celilo Falls on the Columbia River.  Many tribal members wanted the money to be divided up equally between the 2,000 members.  The tribal leaders told Owen his job was to tell the members they could not have the money.  He was told to tell the members the Tribal Council was going to invest the money and “use it to make money.”  Because Owen’s message was interpreted into the Indian languages, he had some time to think about what he was saying.  Using that time, he got the leaders to agree to give the members $1 million and to keep $3 million for investment and an economic development study that led to creation of several new tribal enterprises.  The tribal leaders later said it was the best decision the Tribe ever made.

One of the most significant accomplishments during Owen’s 25 years as Warm Springs Tribal Attorney from 1955 until 1980 was federal legislation returning the 79,000-acre “McQuinn Strip” to the Reservation, which erroneously had been left out of the original 1855 Treaty Reservation due to a faulty survey.  It took a herculean effort by tribal leaders and Owen over many years to convince Congress, the county, local governments, and the area’s ranching and timber company stakeholders that returning the land to the Tribe was the just and proper thing to do.  With the unflagging support of Oregon Senators Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood and Congressman Al Ullman, the McQuinn Act became law in 1972 and, after a 20-year transition period, the land was fully incorporated into the Warm Springs Reservation.  

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