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Oregon Occupiers May Have Violated Federal Law by Damaging a Native American Archeological Site

One of the occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge looking through boxes of historic artifacts from the Burns Paiute Tribe (screenshot via YouTube)
One of the militants at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge looking through boxes of historic artifacts from the Burns Paiute Tribe (screenshot via YouTube)

Armed white men have been occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon for three weeks now. But the federal land they’ve laid claim to is not only a wildlife preserve; it’s also the home of more than 300 prehistoric sites and some 4,000 archaeological artifacts belonging to the Burns Paiute Tribe. The tribe is now asking the federal government to take action against the occupiers, in order to avoid the destruction of any cultural heritage. But some damage may already be done: Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that the occupiers plowed a new road “within an archaeological site important to the Burns Paiute Tribe” this week. And a video uploaded to YouTube by Daily Kos shows the militants rifling through boxes containing artifacts — although they say they want to return them to the Burns Paiute people.

A view inside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Jeff Sorn/Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)
A view inside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Jeff Sorn/Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is “the historical home to the tribe,” writes Leah Sottile in the Washington Post. She goes on to explain:

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.

Today the Burns Paiutes have “a good working relationship” with the federal government, tribal chairperson Charlotte Roderique told Indian Country Today. “That is, the relationship has evolved for the better.” Malheur encompasses hundreds of ancient villages, burial sites, and petroglyphs, and houses thousands of spears, tools, beads, and baskets belonging to the Burns Paiute people, some dating back as far as 9,800 years ago. The tribe works with the US Bureau of Land Management to preserve the archaeological sites, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service employs an on-site archaeologist, Carla Burnside, to help handle the artifacts.

All of this cultural heritage, as well as the maps relevant to it, are now vulnerable to the whims of the militants, who are occupying Malheur in protest of the re-sentencing of two local ranchers. A member of the Burns Paiute tribal council said he feared the men might loot the artifacts and sell them on eBay — a scenario that may sound far-fetched but is, according to the state archaeologist, a “huge problem” in Oregon. The ancient sites and artifacts at Malheur are protected by the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), and the Burns Paiute Tribe has written letters to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Attorney for Oregon, asking them to prosecute the occupiers under ARPA; the tribe is also invoking a “protection against bad men” provision in the 1868 treaty they signed with the United States.

The occupiers, for their part, claim to have no intentions of decimating the Burns Paiutes’ cultural heritage. In a video uploaded to YouTube yesterday, Blaine Cooper records fellow occupier LaVoy Finicum (both of whom live in Arizona, not Oregon) and a couple of other men rifling through boxes containing artifacts at Malheur headquarters. “We’re concerned about the way artifacts have been stored here, the Paiute’s artifacts,” Finicum says, “and so we’re reaching out to the Paiute tribe to say we need to open up some communication, we’re looking for a liaison, because we want to make sure that these things are returned to their rightful owners and that they’re taken care of.”

Finicum goes on to point to an alleged rat’s nest in one of the boxes, and Cooper summarizes: “So, as I understand it, the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] or whoever was in charge of these, the Native artifacts, just kind of boxed ’em up and let ’em rot down here.” No damage to the artifacts is actually visible in the video. Finicum also appears to think the objects date to 1989 and later, based on receipts found with the boxes. “So we have these artifacts from ’89, ’99, 2000, 20-something-odd years,” he says. “So my question is: why do they just keep ’em down here?” At the end of the video, he laments, “This is how the Native Americans’ heritage is being treated. To me, I don’t think it’s acceptable. Let’s get this thing cleared up and let’s start having this dialogue … We want to be respectful as possible of everybody.”

Ironically, the occupiers have been less than respectful of the Burns Paiutes’ land. On Wednesday, they used a bulldozer to clear a new road at the refuge — running right through an important archaeological site and in the process removing part of a fence that was in place specifically “as a deterrent to keep fire crews from driving across the archaeological site,” Jason Holm, the US Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director of external affairs, told Oregon Public Broadcasting. The service confirmed that construction of the road is probably a violation of ARPA. “Even disturbing 3 to 4 inches on the surface is an ARPA violation,” Holm explained.

A comment from Ryan Bundy, one of the leaders of the occupation, helps make some sense of the discrepancy between the militants’ claims of caring about the Burns Paiutes’ artifacts and their disregard for the tribe’s historic sites. “We also recognize that the Native Americans had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim,” Bundy told the AP. “There are things to learn from cultures of the past, but the current culture is the most important.”

This is why, despite the occupiers’ alleged overtures, the tribe refuses to meet with them and wants them out of Malheur. “You can’t go and bulldoze things,” Roderique said. “I don’t know what these people are doing if they are doing things to just get a rise or to be martyr — all they are doing is making enemies out of the people they professed to support.”

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