When news of an armed stand-off at a wildlife refuge in Malheur County broke, I asked: What do the protesters want?
I’m wary of how conflicts are framed in print and broadcast media—as are folks who have asked on Twitter: would the police response be different if the protesters were Black? Muslim?
Jan. 6, 2016 – Burns, Oregon, U.S. – Supporters stand at the entrance to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, located 30 miles south of Burns, Oregon. They are waiting for the arrival of group leader, Ammon Bundy’s arrival for a press conference. (Credit Image: © Mike Albright via ZUMA Wire)
How about American Indians?
The week-old affair began as an effort to bring attention to the “ridiculous arrest of a father and son pair of Oregon ranchers,” according to a website managed by the Bundy family, whose members are leading the protest that began to draw mass media interest on January 4.
The Bundys—who aren’t Oregon residents—were accompanied by a self-proclaimed “armed militia,” (as reported in their website) who have “taken control of Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in the wildlife reserve” and are prepared to stay “indefinitely.”
The arrest of the Oregon ranchers—Dwight Hammond, Jr. and Steven Hammond—stems from setting a back-fire to protect the ranchlands. The fires affected both private and public lands.
But the protestors have more on their plate than the conviction of fellow ranchers.
The Bundy family wants public areas managed by the Federal government to be returned to private citizens. More than half of Oregon’s lands (53%) are managed by the Feds.
“We are using the wildlife refuge as a place for individuals across the United States to come and assist in helping the people of Harney County claim back their lands and resources,” Cliven Bundy told reporters.
“The people will need to be able to use the land and resources without fear as free men and women.”
But most news reports fail to see the deeply rooted irony over the issue: settlers have a long history of slaughtering Indians and stealing their lands.
The Bundys situate their argument in a timeframe that focusses on the narrow perspective offered by settlers of the American West.
Their website reports the “Full Story about What’s Going on in Oregon“. The story begins with this history:
“The Harney Basin (where the Hammond ranch is established) was settled in the 1870s. The valley was settled by multiple ranchers and was known to have run over 300,000 head of cattle.”
The problem is that history doesn’t begin with the invasion and so-called settlement of Oregon.
The Klamath, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Wasco, and the Shasta, Yoncalla, Calapuya, and the Coos, Umpqua, Siletz and Modoc are among those who called the Northwest home long before what one indigenous writer refers to as the arrival of the “cloth people” (a reference to the settlers’ clothing).
In other words, the history of this corner of the world harkens back thousands of years.
The Hammonds (the Oregon ranchers convicted of arson) settled on their ranch at the same time the Federal Government created the Malheur reservation in the 1870s with the purpose to corral the Paiute onto one, concentrated area, only to be removed by the US Army a few years later.
While indigenous denizens fled from their homelands at gun-point, settlers took up logging, mining and ranching, whose effects dramatically changed the ecosystem.
And, as a result, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 created the wildlife refuge in Oregon where the protestors are currently holding their press conferences.
Meantime, the Paiutes were scattered throughout Oregon until they were able to buy acreage in the 1930s—even though they weren’t federally recognized until the 1970s.
Thus, the area that is the focus of dispute is considered ancestral land.
The tribe is offended, according to the chair of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council, Charlotte Rodrique.
The theme of the militants, Rodrique told National Public Radio, is the land should go “back to the original owners—the ranchers. Of course, that rubbed me the wrong way because that’s our aboriginal territory.”
Moreover, the wildlife refuge, the site of the protest, is home to sacred burial sites and petroglyphs.
“We take our children out to teach them traditions—identifying plants and medicines,” Rodrique said.
The Paiute have set aside hurt and grief, and work with local and national governments, conservation groups and community members to preserve their culture.
Quite a contrast to the folks who have taken up arms to preserve theirs.