Sarah Winnemucca isn’t a name known by many—her surname is more likely identified as a town in Nevada than the last name of one of the nineteenth century’s most prominent American Indian writers and activists. Author of Life Among the Piutes, one of the first published narratives by a Native American, she made frequent headlines for her vocal support of indigenous rights. One of her most long-lasting campaigns was to restore her people, the Northern Paiutes, to the Malheur Reservation, which was created in 1872 by the U.S. government. In January 1879, following the Bannock War, residents of the reservation were forced to travel 350 miles to the Yakama Indian Reservation after an ill-informed decision to punish the Northern Paiutes, many of whom had supported the US against the Bannocks in the War. Even the so-called “hostiles” in the war were motivated by the usual: colonialist land encroachment and resource exploitation.
Because of our collective amnesia about both Winnemucca and Malheur, I was surprised to see the site make first-page news across the country last week, when members of a militia group took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in order to protest the US government’s possession and management of public lands in the West.
Malheur—known now mainly to birders who prize species like the Sandhill Crane—has been a contentious site before. Nineteenth-century newspaper articles that Carolyn Sorisio and I published in the collection The Newspaper Warrior: Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins’s Campaign for American Indian Rights 1864-1891 (University of Nebraska Press 2015) indicate that the rightful owner of Malheur was a contested question long before the militia’s current occupation.
The Malheur Indian Reservation was established for the Northern Paiutes in 1872 by President Grant. When Winnemucca arrived a few years later, she reported that Agent Charles Parrish dealt fairly with the Paiutes. Trouble broke out in 1876, however, when President Grant’s “Peace Policy” replaced Parrish with a “Christian” man—William Rinehart—who proved a cruel and corrupt leader. The Bannock War soon followed.
The Northern Paiutes found that Winnemucca’s heroic fidelity to the US was not rewarded in the aftermath to the Bannock War, when the residents of Malheur were ordered to move to the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington Territory. At Yakama, where, Winnemucca reported, “not an Indian was ever taught the alphabet,” Paiutes were denied the education they had received at Malheur. She also reported that her people weren’t adequately reimbursed for their work and, if paid, were later stripped of their earnings: “Yes, poorer in clothes. Poorer in horses. Poorer in victuals; in every thing. We have lost 53 head of horses, and have left 257 head. Our sick have been poorly cared for, and many have died for want of something to eat. Now, can anyone blame us for wanting to go back to our own country?” By November 1879 it was reported that no Indians remained at Malheur.
In response to Winnemucca’s appeals to return the Paiutes to the original reservation, government agents threatened to kill anyone who tried to do so. In 1880 Winnemucca went to Washington DC to argue for reinstatement at Malheur. While there she testified in front of a subcommittee of the US Congress: what was surely a lonely enterprise as the only American Indian, and likely the only woman, in the room. She left the nation’s capital with what she thought was a victory: the administration promised that the Paiutes would be returned to Malheur. This promise was ultimately rejected, however, by a local agent.
In her lectures across the East, Winnemucca continued her tireless campaign for Malheur. The Baltimore American described a speech she gave in that city in January of 1884:
Princess Winnemucca, daughter of the chief of the Piute Indians, delivered her first lecture on the sufferings of her tribe, at the Friends’ Meeting House, Lombard Street, last night. There was a large audience, and the Indian Princess not only interested her hearers, but moved a number to tears by her simple eloquence in describing the terrible suffering members of her tribe experienced while traveling from Malheur reservation Oregon, to the Yakima reservation, Washington Territory . . . She began by telling how comfortably her tribe was living on the Malheur reservation when their agent received a letter from Washington asking if they would give up their land. They replied that they would not sell, for they were happy and living at peace, and instructed the agent to write to the President.
She then detailed the horrific move to Yakama:
At this point Princess Winnemucca was moved to tears, but continuing she told in a graphic manner a terrible tale of suffering. “By force we were moved away. Soldiers were sent for and I was told to gather my people together. I did, going from place to place, and in one month’s time the President’s order came to Major Cochran to move all my Indians across the Blue Mountains and Columbia river to the Yakima reservation, Washington Territory. Our condition at that time was terrible. We were ragged, half-starved, and had nothing. Major Cochran, in the kindness of his heart, did the best he could for us. He dressed the men in soldiers’ uniforms, but he had no clothes for the women. So we began the march from Camp Harding. Amid all that snow and cold it took us one month to go three hundred miles, for at times we could only go five or six miles a day.
Amid her tears the Princess said: “Many a time at night I would see a poor woman come into camp crying, and the civilized women would laugh at her. Why was she crying– because she was tired or cold? No; but because her baby was lying in her arms frozen to death! Old men left in wagons over night perished in the cold, and next morning were dumped out on the road with nothing to cover them but the snow.” Here the tears choked her utterance for a while, but, continuing, she said: “Thrown away as you would treat a hog! When we arrived at Yakima we were turned over like a drove of cattle–so many men, women and children. “
After the war Rinehart and others pressured the government to close Malheur as an Indian Reservation, opening it up to ranching interests. In the remaining years of the century, the site became an infamous location for plume hunters who killed birds to support the burgeoning hat industry. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt restored Malheur as a preserve for native birds. Improvements to the refuge were made in the 1930s with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Today, the Burns Paiute Tribe claims the refuge and the surrounding area as their ancestral land, as affirmed by an 1868 treaty with the US government. As Chairwoman Charlotte Roderique recently remarked on the occupation: “It belongs to the native people who continue to live here. The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is an important place for us. We have no sympathy for those who are trying to take the land from its rightful owners.” Given that the refuge itself is currently owned as public land by the United States, its “rightful owners” remain in question. Regardless, the militia are certainly not the only ones—nor the first—to lay claim to it.
Cari M. Carpenter is Associate Professor of English at West Virginia University, where she is also a core member of the Native American Studies Program. She has published three books: The Newspaper Warrior: Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins’s Public Campaign for American Indian Rights, 1864-1891 (co-edited with Carolyn Sorisio; University of Nebraska Press 2015); Selected Writings of Victoria Woodhull: Suffrage, Free Love, and Eugenics (University of Nebraska Press 2010); and Seeing Red: Anger, Sentimentality, and American Indians (The Ohio State University Press 2008).