“Armed protestors don’t belong here,” Charlotte Roderique, chair of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council, said in a statement Friday. “They continue to desecrate one of our most important sacred sites. They should be held accountable.”
The 184,000-acre refuge, in remote southeastern Oregon, is the historical home to the tribe, which once roamed across southeastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho. More than 4,000 tribal artifacts are housed and cared for on the property, including spears and stone tools, some dating nearly 10,000 years. Videos posted online by the occupiers show them sitting at desks in the refuge offices and using government computers that contain maps and sensitive details about the location of Paiute artifacts.
Jarvis Kennedy, another member of the Tribal Council, fears that the occupiers could be selling off sacred artifacts. “They could be on eBay right now — we don’t know,” Kennedy said. With militia members coming and going freely from the refuge, Kennedy said, “who knows what’s leaving there?”
The refuge contains more than 300 prehistoric sites, such as burial grounds and ancient villages. Tribal members are most concerned for burial sites, especially after photos were released showing roads being forged inside the refuge by occupiers using heavy equipment. Ancestral remains, which were unearthed during floods in the 1980s, are interred around Malheur Lake, inside the refuge.
“They’ve got their horse running around there,” Kennedy said. “Who knows what they’re stomping on?”
The occupation is now entering its third week. It was sparked Jan. 2 when an armed group led by Ammon Bundy, a Phoenix businessman and son of Cliven Bundy, seized the refuge to protest the federal prosecution of two local ranchers. The group is demanding the ranchers’ release and laying claim to the ‘refuge, which they argue should be transferred from the federal government to private hands.
The Paiute, however, insist that the land belongs to them. The root-gathering tribe’s first encounters with westward-traveling pioneers on the Oregon Trail turned sour when settlers’ cattle decimated the already-sparse land, which writer Jarold Ramsey described as “bleak, open, inhumanly spacious” in his book “Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon Country.” The tribes began attacking settlers, prompting the 1860s Snake Indian War — an effort by the government to protect white settlers. Ramsey writes of extermination orders in which soldiers “went through the upper reaches of the Great Basin country hunting Paiutes and other Shoshoneans down like deer, killing for the sake of what in the Viet Nam era became known as ‘body count.’ ”
Despite suppression of the tribes on the Malheur Reservation, in January 1879 some 500 Paiutes were shackled two by two and marched through “knee deep snow” 350 miles north toward the Yakama Reservation — an event the tribe today refers to as its own “Trail of Tears.”
By the time some Paiutes were allowed to return to Burns in the late 1880s, their treaties had been terminated and land had been snatched up by local ranchers. By the mid-1920s, the Egan Land Co. gave the tribe 10 acres outside Burns — the former home of the city dump, prompting rampant illness among tribal members.
Joe Mentor, an attorney for the tribe, said that if the occupiers want the refuge returned to the people, it should go to the Paiutes. “It isn’t there for ranchers or for provocateurs to try to take,” he said. “If it belongs to anybody, it doesn’t belong to the ranchers in the vicinity — it belongs to the tribe it was taken from.”
At a news conference earlier this month, Bundy told reporters that he would like to see the Paiutes “freed from the federal government as well.” On Friday, Bundy told the Associated Press that his group is not interested in the native artifacts and would turn them over to the tribe if asked.
“If the Native Americans want those, then we’d be delighted to give them to them,” he said.
Roderique said the Paiutes don’t need to be freed from the federal government, with which they have built a good relationship. Still, though the tribe disagrees with the Bundy occupation, Kennedy said it has had some advantages.
“The good thing about it [is] now the whole world knows about the Burns Paiute Tribe,” Kennedy said. “Nobody knew us or that we existed a week and a half ago.”
This post has been updated. A previous version incorrectly identified Ammon Bundy as an Idaho rancher.