Before the Bundy brothers and fellow occupiers took over the remote headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and claimed it for private citizens, before there was even a federal wildlife refuge to occupy, there were the Northern Paiute, a tribe that hunted, fished, lived and worshiped in this harshly beautiful landscape for more than 13 centuries.
The area that is now the refuge was once their wintering grounds, but the Paiute were restricted to a reservation in 1868 after signing a treaty that would guarantee them federal recognition and protection from encroaching white settlers. Over time, that land allotment became even smaller, until the central Oregon Paiute were confined to a few thousand acres along what is now Highway 20 — the Burns Paiute Indian Reservation.
As the anti-government protesters dug in for their fifth day at the wildlife refuge, insisting that they would leave only once the land had been “returned to its rightful owners,” the Burns Paiute council convened at its tribal offices 30 minutes away. They all had one, angry question on their minds:
Who exactly did the occupiers think those “rightful owners” might be?
“Don’t tell me any of these ranchers came across the Bering Strait,” the tribal chairwoman, Charlotte Rodrique, said at a news conference Wednesday. “We were here first,” she added. “We’d like the public to acknowledge that.”
Jarvis Kennedy, a member of the tribal council, put his demand bluntly: “They just need to get the hell out of here.”
Although the wildlife refuge is not part of the Burns Paiute reservation, tribe members consider it sacred ancestral land. The Paiute are guaranteed access to the refuge for activities important to their heritage — hunting, fishing, gathering reeds for basket weaving and precious seeds. The tribe is also working with the Bureau of Land Management to preserve its archaeological sites.
“We have had a good working relationship with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” Rodrique said, according to the Oregonian newspaper. “We view them as a protector of our cultural rights in that area.”
The occupiers, she added, are “desecrating” a site that was inhabited to the Paiute long before white settlers had even set foot in the United States. If anyone is to be angry about who the land belongs to, surely it is the tribe members who were forced off of it a century ago.
White settlers first arrived in the Malheur River basin in the early 1800s. They gave the river its name, French for “misfortune,” because of the hardships of their trip. The land in Central Oregon is severe and unforgiving — high scrubgrass desert, jagged mountains and a marshy zone along the river that would have stymied 19th-century travelers.
But the Paiute made good use of it, according to Nancy Langston, who wrote a history of the Malheur basin. Their careful management of the river and its resources sustained the roving tribe for centuries.
That changed by the middle of the 1800s, Langston says. White trappers, traders and ranchers poured into the region, clashing with the migratory Paiute and altering the ecosystem by grazing their cattle. Starved and battle-worn, the Paiute signed a “Peace or Death” treaty with the U.S. government in 1868 — they would cease hostilities and move onto a reservation in exchange for federal protection.
But the treaty was never ratified, and the tribe’s right to the land was never confirmed. Over the next decades, the government allowed white settlers to increasingly encroach on the Paiute lands, eroding the tribe’s sovereignty and its fragile subsistence.
Finally, in 1876, a local chief confronted the federal agent responsible for working with the reservation, according to a contemporary account.
“Did the government tell you to come here and drive us off this reservation?” the chief demanded. “Did the Big Father say, ‘go and kill us all off, so you can have our land?’ Did he tell you to pull our children’s ears off, and put handcuffs on them, and carry a pistol to shoot us with? We want to know how the government came by this land.”
When in 1878 some Paiute took part in a failed attempt to unite the area’s tribes in a general uprising, the reservation was dissolved and its inhabitants forced to march to Yakima, Washington, through brutal winter snow. Army records indicate that five people froze to death during the journey; Paiute histories put that number much higher.
The land that was the reservation was never turned over to private ownership — there are no ranchers, farmers or others to whom what is now the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge can be “returned,” as Janell Ross has reported for The Washington Post. The former Paiute reservation remained controlled by various federal agencies until 1907, when the lands that now make up the Malheur National Forest were consolidated into a reserve.
The Bundy family and other occupiers argue that local government and private owners could manage the land better than the federal government.
“It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, the rancher back to ranching,” Ammon Bundy, one of the brothers at the refuge, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.
The land has suffered somewhat in the past century or so, mostly because of overgrazing and misguided irrigation and dam projects, Langston says, which contributed to erosion and habitat loss for the area’s prized wildlife. But those programs were largely aimed at helping farmers and ranchers; it’s unlikely that the area would have fared differently if the reserve had been privately owned.
A century later, the descendants of the wildlife refuge’s only other “owners” — the Northern Paiute — say that they’re worried about the effect that the militia members’ occupation might have on their ancestral land. The tribal council met with archaeologists for the refuge Tuesday, according to the Oregonian, to talk about protecting the area’s historic sites. The refuge also houses important papers documenting the tribe’s history and relationship to the land.
“It gets tiring. It’s the same battles that my ancestors had. And now it’s just a bunch of different cavalry wearing a bunch of different coats,” Kennedy told CNN.
Kennedy also wondered how authorities would respond if tribe members had taken over Malheur rather than white anti-government militants.
“We’d be already shot up, blown up or in jail. Just being honest; they are used to killing us,” Kennedy told CNN. “They are white men. That is the difference. That is just how I see it.”
So far, police and federal agents have kept their distance from the occupied refuge, leery of confrontation after deadly showdowns like the one in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Tex., in 1993.
On Wednesday night, residents of Harney County crammed into a building at the local fairgrounds to discuss their community and its future in often impassioned terms. Though some residents spoke in support of the occupiers, most urged for peace and respect for the law, according to the New York Times.
When Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, who ran the meeting, got up to speak, the crowd erupted into cheers.
“You don’t get to come here and tell us how we get to live our lives,” he said, according to the Times. “I’m here to ask those folks to go home and let us go back to our lives in Harney County.”