Yet more armed, white militants, members of the Pacific Patriots Network arrived in Burns, Oregon this weekend. They claimed to be there to prevent another Ruby Ridge or Waco by providing a buffer between Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher who drove BLM officers off his land with guns in 2014, and law enforcement.
Carrying guns, they presented a resolution to the FBI and local law enforcement calling for the return of land to the people of Harney County—and surprisingly, recommended co-management with the Burns Paiute Tribe.
Burns Paiute tribal chairperson Charlotte Roderique has stated to the media her irritation with Bundy and his “militia” supporters goal of “giving back the land to ranchers.” “It’s been validated we’ve been here since 15,000 years ago,” she told ICTMN. “These people are ignorant of the history and that they don’t think about the statements they are making. They are misinformed.”
The Northern Paiutes signed a treaty with the U.S. Government in 1868 that was not ratified and the land, including that of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge remains unceded tribal territory. The refuge was once part of the 1.78 million acre Malheur Indian reservation. Constant attacks and encroachment of their lands by white settlers led to the Bannock Indian War, which the Northern Paiute bands lost. In retribution, 500 tribal members were forcibly marched in January of 1879 350 miles to present-day Yakama Nation—many shackled together in knee-deep snow. When they were able to return years later they found their lands were sold off to white settlers and corporations.
In light of this, Roderique says, “we are not adverse to a land transfer however, it’s not something that you would just do. There would have to be financial arrangements made. Accommodations for people who work there. We’d be interested in co-managing the refuge to protect our sites out there.”
The tribe enjoys a strong working relationship with the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and participated extensively in creating a Comprehensive Conservation Plan in 2013.
“We utilize the refuge almost constantly,” Roderique explains, “We’ve had excursions where our elders sit down and practice traditional crafts and tell stories about how we once existed. There are petroglyphs down there—it’s a real valuable site for us. The youth program takes kids down and they make tule boats and swamp. Being Native people we think it is necessary to continue the practice of oral history. When you are down there these stories come naturally. When you take children out today and show them how we survived here so long it is an important tool to bringing the elders and the youth together so the youth are able to identify themselves as Paiute people.”
However, tribal council members expressed concerns about feeling unsafe with the arrival of more men with guns in their community. Tribal council secretary Wanda Johnson told ICTMN, “These people who have been intimidating our Indian men but they are unchallenged and they walk about town and our concern is if they could escalate things…we don’t want to see bloodshed or see anyone thrown in jail. We feel frustrated that these people can come and go in town and resupply. People are taking things out there and feeding them. Like they are out there in on an outing. It’s so frustrating.”
Some animosity towards Native people can be seen in the Harney County Committee of Safety, a local group Bundy started which refers to Natives as “savages” in their statement of purpose.
Tribal council member Jarvis Kennedy said, “Ask the tribes to send some prayers by us. We can try to solve this with that. We definitely got to keep our eyes open in town. Our employees [many are non-Native] are under threat themselves driving out in tribal vehicles and wearing our tribal emblems on their clothes and hats. We have a tribal member whose son is the chief of police in Burns. Even though he is a cop if something happens to him what are these young guys going to do.”
Johnson worries that, “There may be artifacts in that building taken and brought into town. They may be sold at auction or ground up and sold in China for medicinal use. There are a lot of graves sites and things in that whole area. There is information they can get in those buildings and pass on to duck hunters and such who could be digging those sites in the future…the refuge is underfunded and has only one officer to cover 187,000 acres that they are trying to protect.”
Photos taken by an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter did show that Bundy’s supporters have been going through employee files and computers. On Sunday, January 10, Bundy released a video of himself using the refuge’s heavy equipment to take down fences and was condemned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for it.
Roderique noted that “Secretary Jewell assured us that the federal authorities would take care of our sacred sites out there.”
However, all federal employees have left town for fear for their safety and Jewell has been criticized for not levying liens or any punishment at all on Bundy’s father, Cliven Bundy, despite his refusal to pay $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and continued grazing of his cattle on public lands for free.
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