Oregon standoff mirrors westward expansion

If anyone has a claim to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, it’s the Paiute Indians

January 7, 2016 1:30PM ET

White militants continue to occupy the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in solidarity with two ranchers — Steven and Dwight Hammond — who were convicted and imprisoned for arson after setting a series of fires that spread to public land.

“The end goal here is that we are here to restore the rights to the people here so that they can use the land and resources,” Ryan Bundy, a spokesperson for the militants, told Fox News on Monday.

The media coverage of the standoff between the militants and government authorities has thus far focused on the occupation, but a closer look at the incident reveals the complicated historical legacies of westward expansion and the seizure of Native American land by white settlers.

Northern Paiute in Eastern Oregon

The Hammonds, who are distancing themselves from the armed militia, were convicted and sentenced in 2012 to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison under a 1996 antiterrorism law. Most coverage of their trial mentions the arson only briefly and portrays their actions as justifiable, meant to reduce the damaging effects of invasive species on their land. But the arson was neither a trivial nor a one-time offense. It was not their only crime either. 

In 2001, the Hammonds illegally set a series of fires on land they leased from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for cattle operation. The arson was an attempt to cover up their illegal poaching of deer in the area, according to federal prosecutors. The fire burned 139 acres and “forestalled grazing for two seasons.” In addition to endangering the lives of firefighters, the damage cost the federal government more than $1 million. As The Oregonian’s Les Zaitz points out, Steven Hammond and his son set another fire in 2006 to prevent a blaze caused by lightning from destroying their ranch and winter feed. As with their militant supporters, it is clear that the two ranchers felt entitled to break laws they believed were unjust or antithetical to their interests rather than attempting to change them.

The federal government’s subdued response to the Oregon takeover reflects the racial double standard that was part and parcel of westward expansion.

Moreover, the militants claim to be careful stewards of the land and regional history. Yet their behavior and the narratives their supporters tell about the land reveal the narrowness of their vision. The land on (and around) the refuge has a complicated history and mixed-use purpose, which the Hammonds ignored believing that they knew how best to utilize the property.

The actions of the Hammonds and their militant supporters mirror the practices of Oregon’s earlier white settlers, who made, in the words of Indian Agent W.V. Rinehart in 1878, “no secret of their intention to occupy and use the land” that had been reserved for Native Americans. The settlers illegally took up residence on the Malheur Indian Reserve, grazed their cattle there and refused to vacate.

The ensuing standoff between Native peoples and white settlers led to the Bannock War of 1878. In the wake of the fighting, in 1879, the U.S. Army rounded up 500 members of the Northern Paiute tribe and forcibly relocated them to the Yakima Reserve in Washington State. At least 100 Paiutes died during the brutal relocation effort. 

Bannock prisoners at the Snake River Reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho, September 1878.
Smithsonian Institute Archives

“While they were held in Washington state, the government turned all the Paiute land into public domain so that white settlers could homestead,” two Paiute historians, Minerva Soucie and Charolette Roderque, wrote in 2010. “The Paiutes who returned were forced to live on the outskirts of Burns.”

Yet the forced displacement did not end the Paiutes relationship with, and attachment to, the area surrounding the refuge. In the 1960s the Paiutes sought federal recognition, which was granted in 1972. The Burns Paiute Reservation encompasses 13,736 acres in Harney County, a significant reduction from the 1,778,560 acres originally set aside.

Most of the land taken from the Paiute and other Indians went to the white settlers. But some of it was transformed into the Malheur Wildlife Reserve in 1908.

The history of the land matters precisely because of what the occupying militants are demanding. “The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area … will come back and reclaim their land,” Bundy told the Rolling Stone on Jan. 3, adding, “the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control.”

These demands are deeply ironic because if anyone has a claim to the land in and around the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, it is the Native Americans who once resided there. Just as the white settlers who took part in westward expansion felt entitled to Native lands, Bundy and his followers have completely erased the Paiute story from the surrounding historical landscape.

The federal government’s subdued response to the takeover reflects the racial double standard that was part and parcel of westward expansion. “What if it was a bunch of Natives that went out there and overtook [the refuge]?” Jarvis Kennedy, a member of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council, who has asked the militants to go home, said recently underscoring the unequal treatment. “What would the outcome be?” 

Erika Bsumek is an associate professor of American History at the University of Texas at Austin and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She is a specialist in Native American history and environmental history.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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