When a group of armed, anti-government extremists took over a federal wildlife refuge located near Burns, Oregon, on Jan. 3, they brought a strange new twist to the centuries-long struggle over land rights in the American West. The group of ranchers, led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, are staunchly opposed to government ownership of local land. They’ve made it their mission to wrest control of the Malheur National Forest away from federal authorities.
The standoff is raising eyebrows in Native American communities located near Burns. They argue that the conflict in Burns centers on land that neither the ranchers nor the federal government were ever entitled to.
“I just think they’re a bunch of glory hounds,” Charlotte Rodrique, the chairwoman of the federally recognized Burns Paiute Tribe, said in an interview with Reuters. The Paiute originally inhabited much of the land around Burns, including the Malheur National Forest. But since the settlement of the Oregon Territory in the 18th and 19th centuries, the tribe’s territory has been isolated to a dry patch of mountainous land.
“There was never an agreement that we were giving up this land. We were dragged out of here,” Rodrique told Reuters. Naturally, it’s difficult for her to empathize with the Bundys’ cause.
“If you want to get technical about it … the land belongs to the Paiute here,” Selena Sam, a member of the tribe’s council, told Reuters. The Paiute have had their own conflicts with the federal government of late, having encountered bureaucratic difficulties obtaining federal permits to fish and hunt in and round Malheur.
Tension between the Burns Paiute and the descendants of white settlers and the US government have deep roots. In an interview with Democracy Now, Native activist and writer Jacqueline Keeler recalled a morbid moment in Paiute history. This month “is the 137th anniversary of when 500 Paiutes were loaded onto wagons and walked, under heavy armed guard, from their—from the lands where the Bundys are right now holding it and to the Yakama Reservation in Washington state, some 300 miles, knee-deep in snow,” Keeler said. “And they were forced to march, shackled two by two. And so, that’s some of the background there.”
According to Keeler, Malheur National Forest was known as Malheur Reservation, consisting of as much as 1.7 million acres of land. “But with incursions from white settlers, they basically pressured the federal government to open it up to settlement.” And so, in 1876, US president Ulysses S. Grant did just that. As the local Paiute were forced onto smaller and smaller plots of land, starvation and malnutrition within the tribe grew worse. This sparked the Bannock Indian War of 1878: “The Paiute rose up, and then that’s when they were force-marched out of the area and lost most of the land.”
“They actually were allowed to return five years later,” she adds. But without any land to their name, they were forced to work for local ranchers. Eventually, in 1928, “the Egan Land Company gave the Burns Paiute ten acres of land just outside the city. And the land was an old city dump, which the Indians cleaned and drilled a well to make ready for houses.”
This actually happened: White settlers and the US government got 1.7 million acres of land, and in exchange, the Burns Paiute got a former city dump. Ammon and Ryan Bundy have nothing to complain about.