When Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who faced off against Bureau of Land Management agents in an armed standoff in 2014, came to Oregon to takeover the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in support of fellow ranchers, he knew nothing about the mistreatment of the Burns Paiute Tribe by the federal government and American settlers.
But, scratch the surface of any land issues in the United States, especially in the West, and you are confronted with persisting and strong land claims held by Native nations.
In southeastern Oregon, the Burns Paiute and the other Northern Paiute tribes possess unceded claims to what was once a 1.78-million-acre reservation called the Malheur Indian Reservation. The Malheur Wildlife Refuge was just a small part of that reservation, and although the tribe signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1868, it was never ratified by Congress and the land remains unceded.
Burns Tribal chairperson Charlotte Roderique at a press conference yesterday, had a stern rebuke of Bundy’s occupation of her homeland, “Yesterday, the Burns Paiute Tribe joined other community leaders calling for an end to armed protestors at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Armed protestors do not belong to here. They are endangering our sacred sites and our children. Malheur Wildlife Refuge was a wintering gathering ground before the settlers come here.”
And tribal councilman Jarvis Kennedy had even stronger words, “What would happen to Indians who did this? We, as Harney County residents don’t need some clown to stand up for us, we are hard-working people…we survived without them. We need them to get the hell out of here. They are jeopardizing and scaring our people.”
Despite this, Bundy’s actions have brought national media coverage of the January of 1879 forced march of 500 Paiutes from the Malheur Indian Reservation some 350 miles in knee-deep snow, many shackled two by two, to the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington State—the Northern Paiutes’ “Trail of Tears.” One group that was force-marched by the U.S. army simply disappeared. No one knows what happened to them. Still more died and when a few Paiute returned to Burns, Oregon, they were considered outlaws, many were landless as their reservation had been opened completely to settlers and large California ranching corporations.
“The one thing I’m really proud of is the tenacity of our people.” Roderique noted, “420 people are descendants of people who were able to get back here from Yakama. I wouldn’t drop my children off from Yakama and tell my children to walk back. They wouldn’t know what to eat, what river to follow.”
The survivors lived where they could working for white ranchers until 1928 when the Egan Land Company gave the tribe 10 acres of land just outside the city of Burns. It was the site of the old city dump which the tribal members cleaned, drilled a well and built houses on.
Today there are 420 tribal members with the majority living off the reservation. The tribe originally numbered 2,000 before the punishing campaigns by General Crook in the late 1860s. Those losses coupled with more lives lost during the forced removal and they have not yet fully recovered their population 137 years later.
In 1969, some Paiutes received a settlement for their lost land which amounted to between $.28 to $.45 per acre. The price was set at 1890 prices.
“We have 10,000 acres of tribally-owned land,” Roderique said, “Land in trust is 1,000 acres and there are 11,000 individually allotted land remnants of the old reservation within boundaries that was opened up to settlers.”
However, she notes these lands are, “Pretty much checkerboarded, but it’s pretty much in the center of the valley. It’s hard to develop or do anything with the land when you have to get permission from 58 other people. Those lands are pretty much in limbo and administered by the BIA.”
Asked about the Burns Paiute’s press conference, Ammon Bundy admitted he didn’t know much about their history but said, “That is interesting. They have rights as well. I would like to see them be free from the federal government as well. They’re controlled and regulated by the federal government very tightly and I think they have a right to be free like everybody else.”
Roderick did note humorously that she was, “Trying to compose a letter for when they return all this land to us.”
Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, creators of Not Your Mascot. She has been published in Telesur, Earth Island Journal and the Nation and interviewed on MSNBC and DemocracyNow and Native American Calling. She has a forthcoming book called “Not Your Disappearing Indian” and podcast. On twitter: @jfkeeler