BURNS, Ore. — The county sheriff wants rancher Ammon Bundy and his supporters occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to go home. Animal-rights activists want them to go vegan. And the native Paiute tribe just wants the occupiers to leave what they say is their land.

“The protesters have no claim to this land. It belongs to the native people who continue to live here,” Burns Paiute tribal chair Charlotte Rodrique said at a press conference Wednesday.

The occupation of the refuge, now in its fourth day, has been part demand for local control over public land and part protest over how the federal government manages the Western landscape. Bundy, an Idaho rancher and the son of Cliven Bundy, and his followers stake claim on vast stretches of federal land in the West and have vowed to occupy the refuge until a complete investigation into historical land deeds and ownership rights yields a transfer of land control to local interests. Bundy supporter and refuge occupier LaVoy Finicum, who lives near Bundy’s father in Arizona, said that a paper trail would reveal an illegal transfer of sale from private ownership to the government and that an investigation into historical Western real estate sales would unwind federal control of the lands.

But Sara J. Hawley, a member of the local Paiute tribe, said the land has never belonged to anybody but the Paiute.

“I just laugh” at the occupiers, Hawley said.

“The Burns Paiute Tribe has not ceded any of its rights in the tribe’s ancestral territory,” added Rodrique, pointing to a treaty — never ratified in Washington — that means many Westerners are technically squatting on Paiute land.

“They wanted us to give up our land,” Rodrique said. “We never did it.”

In 1868, the Burns Paiute Tribe entered into a treaty with the federal government that among other things, guaranteed the protection and safety of the Paiute people and their cultural resources. Six tribe band leaders signed the treaty but the U.S. Senate never ratified it. Without ratification, the agreement was voided and a legal transfer of land never occurred, Rodrique said.

“We never gave up our aboriginal rights,” she said. “We did have a treaty but it wasn’t ratified, so therefore it was a contract that was never completed. And so we as a tribe view that this is still our land.”


A U.S. flag covers a sign at the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, where a group of self-styled militiamen have occupied land that a local native tribe says belongs to them.  REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The treaty covered territory from Oregon’s Blue Mountains and Cascade Range into parts of California, Nevada and Idaho. On Wednesday, the tribe called a press conference to address the question of legal ownership and ask Bundy and his band to leave.

“Harney County residents don’t need some clown to come in here and stand up for us,” Burns Paiute tribal councilman Jarvis Kennedy said. “We survived without them before and we’ll survive without them when they’re gone. So they should get the hell out of here. Sorry, but we didn’t ask them here. We don’t want them here.”

Bundy told reporters on Tuesday at what’s become a routine 11 a.m. press conference at the refuge that the occupiers want to work with the community to help them claim their land rights.

“They say they don’t want to bother the community, but you know what? Our kids are sitting at home right now when they should be at school. They’re jeopardizing, they’re scaring our people around here,” Kennedy said.

Hawley said she saw irony in Finicum’s plan to weed though 100-plus years of land deeds and bills of sale. His call to dig into historical land records landed on the 137th anniversary of what Hawley called the Burns Paiute’s Trail of Tears. On Jan. 5, 1879, federal officials rounded up tribe members and forced them to move north.

“They marched us knee deep in snow to Yakima,” Hawley said. “We still suffer from historical traumas. Reservation life hasn’t been easy. They stole our parenting skills. They ‘civilized’ us. And now our traditions are lost.”

Tribal members want Americans to remember that history.

“We were killed and driven off of our land,” Kennedy said. “We were marched in snow out there, hundreds of miles to forts. And when they finally let us go, we didn’t have no place to go. Our land was already taken. They gave us ten acres at the city dump. Think about that. Think about those little kids back in the day, marching. Those elders. Would you want to be out there? Walking? Marching? We don’t need those guys here. They need to go.”

Kennedy said they don’t need any help from the refuge occupiers that spend their days and nights hunkered down in toasty federal buildings while outside temperatures dip into the 20s. But Bundy and his supporters, many of whom are not currently working or simply say they’re retired, called on the community to help them.

On Tuesday, Bundy said some folks brought them soup and a sympathetic rancher stocked a freezer full of meat for the group holing up at the refuge. And the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) delivered vegan jerky to the militants on Wednesday.

The snacks came along with signs that read, “The End of Animal-Based Ag Is Nigh: GET OUT NOW!”

The occupiers gladly accepted the vegan fare, which is made of soy, seitan and shiitake mushrooms and packs a bigger protein punch than beef. At least one self-described hardcore carnivore occupying the refuge promptly announced his love for the meatless treats, a PETA spokesperson said.

“He tried the hickory smoked primal strip,” said PETA spokesperson Lindsay Rajt. “He said it tasted like salmon and he loved it.”