On Monday, February 29, nearly two months after armed militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the Burns Paiute Tribe was finally allowed to visit it. The refuge is their ancient wintering grounds and filled with culturally-sensitive sites and even burial grounds of their ancestors. On Thursday, 14 more militia members were arrested, including two more members of the Bundy family who led the armed standoffs in Oregon and Nevada against federal authorities.
“I’m glad they cleaned up all those urinals they made,” Burns Paiute tribal councilman Jarvis Kennedy told ICTMN. “They went in with Hazmat suits on and got all of that out of there and covered it up. When I first saw it kind of made me mad. That’s our burial ground area.”
The 178,000-acre refuge was once part of the Malheur Indian Reservation that was the homeland of Northern Paiute tribes like Wadatika, the name Burns Paiute people called themselves after small seeds they harvested along Malheur and Harney Lakes.
Kennedy said he couldn’t get into specific details as to how the federal authorities are going to proceed with cleanup. The painful process will proceed to remove a road the occupiers constructed, as well as three different trenches they dug where they dumped trash and human feces. The FBI had reported last month that one of these trenches was close to culturally-sensitive sites on the refuge. The tribe received a plan from the archaeologist for assessment of damage and loss of cultural artifacts and sites.
“I think they got a case against them,” Kennedy told ICTMN. “[The militants] were dumb enough to make a video of themselves making the road and digging. They also left fingerprints on the controls of the heavy equipment they operated.”
On Wednesday, the Burns Paiute Tribal council met with Bureau of Indian Affairs regional director, Stanley Speaks in Portland. He assured them that the BIA would offer assistance for expenses the tribe had incurred for extra law enforcement patrols and for the aftermath. The tribe provided full 24-hour police coverage for their community during the 41-day occupation of the refuge.
“The Chief of Police of Warm Springs Reservation sent us two officers to help us, then two more,” Kennedy explained. ‘They were each on a five-day shift.”
While in Portland, the tribal leaders also met with the U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch who thanked the tribe for all their support during the occupation. She also thanked the people of Burns and Harney County “who had to endure an occupation of their town.”
Tribal members and townspeople faced harassment and threats from the armed occupiers who invaded their community. Native men were a particular target in town. Tribal leaders, local law enforcement and Fish and Wildlife employees all reported out-of-state vehicles driving slowly by their homes at night and had their families threatened. Fish and Wildlife staff were all sent away during the occupation for their safety and have only just returned.
Kennedy says there is still a lot of animosity, especially from businesses in the town of Burns that were backing the occupation. The local Verizon franchise owner had her truck plastered with stickers supporting the militants. She took the stickers off after the Verizon corporate office demanded she do so, but tribal members are still boycotting her business.
Another local business owner, an optometrist, who was an outspoken supporter of Bundy and his followers has also lost tribal business. The tribe is “hurting them in the wallet,” Kennedy says.
However, the occupation also brought out their supporters in the community and the tribe discovered they had many allies they could count on when it really mattered.
“It’s good to have allies on our side,” says Kennedy. “We have to work with the town. We are a sovereign nation and we believe in having a good neighbor policy.”
On Thursday, the FBI arrested 14 more militants, including two more Bundy brothers, who join their father Cliven Bundy and brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy in jail. Also arrested was Jerry DeLemus, a co-chair of New Hampshire’s committee to elect Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner.
All 14 were charged with armed assault against federal law enforcement officers during the 2014 standoff in Nevada when an armed group of supporters of Cliven Bundy successfully forced the Bureau of Land Management to stop removal of Cliven’s cattle from federal land. The rancher had over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees to the federal government.
Also on Thursday, Ammon Bundy the leader of the takeover at Malheur, released a video from jail in Portland, Oregon. He says he’s not ashamed and doesn’t regret what he did because he knew “it was right.”
Since his arrest, Ammon has tried to recast the armed occupation as an act of free speech and played down the guns he and his followers brandished. In interviews and on social media the militants claimed they were willing to die to return federal land to “the original owners”—ranchers, miners and loggers. In his recent video, he termed the 41-day takeover “a demonstration.” Malheur and the BLM grazing land the Bundys use in Nevada are both unceded territories belonging to the Paiute and Shoshone peoples.
“They are in jail,” Councilman Kennedy said about Ammon and his followers, “It’s like we said at our first press conference when this all started. We were here first before they came here and we are going to be here after they are all gone. They are all gone and we now have to deal with that mess.”
Meanwhile back at the refuge, tundra and trumpeter swans, northern pintails, red-winged blackbirds, and sandhill cranes have all been seen. Over 320 species call the refuge home either for short stopovers as they head north or for nesting. Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Facebook page shared a photo of arriving swans saying, “Normalcy rests on the wings of these birds and is exactly what those of us who live here and everyone that has made Malheur a part of their lives have needed.”