Who does Malheur belong to?

January 13, 2016

Brian Ward considers the Malheur occupation in the context of Native resistance spanning centuries to federal government land seizures.

THE GOAL of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, according to Ammon Bundy and his motley collection of armed "patriots," is to take the land back from the federal government and return it to its original owners.

But it's safe to say that these right-wing protesters with a penchant for military tactical gear don't intend to restore the sovereignty of the Paiute tribe, from whom Uncle Sam stole a massive swath of eastern Oregon, including the Malheur refuge, in the 19th century.

Bundy, the son of the notorious Cliven Bundy who organized his own standoff with federal agents in 2014, and his co-thinkers idealize the Founding Fathers--and insist that their claim to the land is based on their pursuit of life, liberty and property rights.

But any honest historical treatment of claims to the land surrounding the Malheur refuge would show that the Paiute tribe, which once held sovereignty over more than 1.5 million acres of land in this region, is the land's rightful owners. Sadly, the tribe now controls a paltry 750 acres near the federal outpost occupied by Bundy and his followers.

Members of the Paiute tribe respond to the militia occupation in eastern Oregon
Members of the Paiute tribe respond to the militia occupation in eastern Oregon

AFTER DECADES of war, encroachment and expansion by settlers, President Ulysses Grant set aside a portion of this land as the Malheur Indian Reservation for the Northern Paiute Tribe on September 12, 1872. The new reservation was for "all the roving and straggling bands in Eastern and Southeastern Oregon, which can be induced to settle there."

The government's stated aim was that the reservation would put an end to ongoing conflicts between white settlers and Natives, but predictably, relegating the Northern Paiute to a particular area gave encroaching settlers and corporations greater opportunity to seize the Paiutes' ancestral lands. Almost immediately following the establishment of the reservation, settlers started clamoring for a modification of the boundaries.

Typically, the U.S. government served as the vehicle by which land was stolen from Natives and later given or sold cheaply to settlers and large corporations.

Writing in Indian Country Today, Steve Russell summarized how the Malheur Indian Reservation was dismantled:

White settlement nibbled at the Malheur Indian Reservation until the Bannock War in 1878, which ended with surrendered Paiutes and Bannocks on the reservation being removed, officially to the Yakama Reservation in Washington Territory. Unofficially, Paiutes had scattered all over the Western States that comprised their aboriginal lands. The Burns Paiute Reservation is the remains of the Malheur Reservation, and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is an alternative use for the federal land, for those who believe the federal government exists.

The Bannock War was an Indian uprising that forged an alliance between the Paiute, Bannock and Shoshone tribes fighting settlers and the government in the area. Unfortunately, the tribe lost the war, and as Russell explains, the tribes were forced to resettle in Washington state. This month marks the 137th anniversary of the government's forced march of 500 Paiutes in shackles over 350 miles in knee-deep snow, from the Malheur Indian Reservation to the Yakama Reservation in Washington.

Today, individual members of the Burns Paiute Tribe own more than 13,000 acres of land in Harney County, which is home to the Malheur refuge, though fragmentation of this ownership has hampered efforts to use the land.

But on the question of the Malheur occupation, the tribe has been unified and direct in its opposition. The "armed protesters don't belong here," said tribal chair Charlotte Rodrique. "By their actions, they are endangering one of our sacred sites."

Council member Jarvis Kennedy asked whether Native protesters would receive the same gentle treatment given to the armed protesters occupying Malheur today: "What if it was a bunch of natives that went out there and overtook that? Would they let us come into town and get supplies? Think about that...They just need to get the hell out of here. We don't want them here."

TO CONDEMN the right-wing occupiers should not be confused with support for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), however. Throughout U.S. history, the Department of the Interior, which runs both the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has served as the "liberal" means by which the government has taken control of American Indian land.

Evidence of this abounds across the U.S. wherever formerly tribal lands have been "preserved" as a National Forest, National Park or Wildlife Refuge. This "preservation" is but a step in the process of loosening tribal control over the land--and often these "preserved" areas are sold off to the highest bidder, especially during times of economic crisis and tight government budgets.

Natives have resisted this seizure of land for centuries. One of the most prominent modern fights against the BLM by American Indians was spearheaded beginning in the 1970s by sisters Mary and Carrie Dann of the Western Shoshone (Newe) tribe in Nevada.

In 1863, the Western Shoshone tribe signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley with the U.S., which covered most of the land that makes up modern-day Nevada (the same area where Cliven Bundy had his 2014 standoff). In this treaty, no land was officially ceded--rather, it was a treaty of peace.

Because the land sits on top of the richest gold deposits in the country, corporations for some time have been fighting for mining rights in the area. Mary and Carrie Dann were ranchers and would allow their animals to graze the land, and the BLM managed the stolen land, even though officially it fell under the sovereignty of the Western Shoshone.

In 1973, the BLM informed the Dann sisters that their livestock was trespassing on federal land without a permit. The sisters refused to pay for the permit, since the land belonged to the tribe as outlined in the Treaty of Ruby Valley. The U.S. proceeded to sue the Dann sisters.

In 1979, the Indian Claims Court (ICC) determined that the Western Shoshone had lost their land in 1872, and the U.S. said it would pay $26 million to the tribe in exchange for the 24 million acres of land that had been stolen, but the tribe voted overwhelmingly to refuse the money, stating that the land was not for sale. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Dann sisters no longer had a legitimate claim--because the U.S. government had offered to buy the land, even though the tribe refused to accept the money or cede its ownership of the land.

In 1992, the sisters stopped the BLM from taking their livestock. Later that year, the BLM came back with more force and took their livestock. Again in 2002 and 2003, the BLM rounded up more than 2,000 horses and cattle.

Mary and Carrie were left with no way to make a living, and once the animals were out of the way, the BLM allowed the mining corporations in to dig for gold--in blatant violation of the BLM's mission statement "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America's public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations."

Carrie Dann, in her acceptance speech for the Right Livelihood Award, said: "The U.S. government is acting like a dictator in just taking our land. I have voiced again and again, Western Shoshone land--our Mother Earth--is not for sale."

Though her sister passed away in 2005, Carrie Dann is still fighting the BLM and the U.S. government for her land.

THE POINT of the story about the Dann sisters is not to provide a justification for the Mahleur occupiers, but to illustrate, first, that the BLM has blood on its hands when it comes to its relationship with American Indians, and second, that the right-wing protesters in Malheur demanding more land for non-Native ranchers show the same disregard for the rightful owners of the land as the BLM does.

This is the legacy of Manifest Destiny and settler-colonialism--in perpetuation of the myth that this "pristine" land had been eternally ready and waiting for its "discovery" by European settlers.

In her book An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz puts it this way:

Everything in U.S. history is about the land--who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity ("real estate") broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.

The Malheur occupation gives the left an opportunity to discuss the historical land relationships in this country. It's our responsibility to call out the hypocrisy and racism of these militias--and stand in solidarity with American Indians fighting for their treaty rights and their liberation across the U.S.

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