As the media continue spotlighting the armed extremists occupying the federal headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, their complaints about federal government “over-reach,” and their demands that the feds “give the land back,” members of another group say that if there were to be any giveback, they ought to be first in line.
They are the Burns Paiute Tribe, descendants of the people the U.S. Army under Gen. George Crook starved and murdered into submission in the 1860s in a successful effort to confine them to a 1.8 million-acre reservation. This was later reduced to the 1,000 or so acres where the 420-member tribe is now headquartered. The Paiute leaders are profoundly irked by the occupiers’ demands. Amanda Peacher reports:
“Armed protesters don’t belong here. By their actions, they are endangering one of our sacred sites,” said tribal Chair Charlotte Rodrique.
Rodrique said she told a friend she was offended by the militants’ notion that they could return the refuge lands to their rightful owners.
“I’m sitting here trying to write an acceptance letter for when they return all this land to us,” Rodrique said.
For all too many American Indians, it’s a familiar story.
Chairwoman Rodrique also said, “Don’t tell me any of these ranchers came across the Bering Strait and settled here.”
The archeological record shows that people populated the land now surrounding the 190,000-acre Malheur preserve at least 6,000 years ago. The Northern Paiute were there at least back as far as 1,300 years ago.
As land-hungry white settlers started flooding into the area in the late 1850s, the Paiutes objected forcefully. That brought calls for the Army to step in and quell resistance. Immediately after the Civil War, it did just that. After nearly half the tribe had been wiped out by starvation and slaughter for defending themselves, Crook’s dictum was “peace or death.” Outnumbered and outgunned, the Paiutes gave in.
In 1868, a treaty was “negotiated” at gunpoint with the Paiutes and other tribes in eastern Oregon. The government promised to prosecute any whites who killed or injured Indians. But the Senate refused to ratify the treaty. This was a common occurrence. Tribes would sign treaties and make land concessions and the government negotiators would agree to certain obligations. But, not unusually, the Senate would either not ratify the treaty or would make deep changes in it, such as reducing annuities, often without informing the tribe. However, the treaty-signing tribe was required to stick to its side of the agreement.
As another tribe’s leader—the Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud (Mahpiua Luta)—would later say: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they kept one; they promised to take our land, and they did.”
In 1872, by executive order, President U.S. Grant established the Malheur Reservation. But almost immediately white settlers poured in, and then prospectors found a little gold. Rather than enforce the executive order, the government gave cover to the settlers and gold diggers by opening the boundaries of the reservation. Clashes were inevitable.
Topping that off, as was so often the case elsewhere, the private contractor Washington installed as the government’s agent for the Paiutes was an Indian hater who withheld food and other allotments the tribe was supposed to receive.
In 1876, in response to this encroachment on the reservation lands his people had been guaranteed, Paiute Chief E-He-Gant (Egan) fumed:
“Did the government tell you to come here and drive us off this reservation? Did the Big Father say, go and kill us all off, so you can have our land? Did he tell you to pull our children’s ears off, and put handcuffs on them, and carry a pistol to shoot us with? We want to know how the government came by this land. Is the government mightier than our Spirit-Father, or is he our Spirit-Father? Oh, what have we done that he is to take all from us that he has given us? His white children have come and taken all our mountains, and all our valleys, and all our rivers; and now, because he has given us this little place without our asking him for it, he sends you here to tell us to go away. Do you see that high mountain away off there? There is nothing but rocks there. Is that where the Big Father wants me to go? If you scattered your seed and it should fall there, it would not grow, for it is all rocks there.”
That wasn’t the end. The Paiutes joined the Bannocks in 1878 and renewed their resistance to encroachment. A brave but hopeless fight. Ultimately, all the Northern Paiutes were moved off the reservation and shipped to Fort Simcoe in Washington state. In the early 1880s, the now-vacated Malheur Reservation was completely opened to homesteaders and miners. Eventually, under the Dawes Act of 1887 that squeezed two-thirds of their remaining land out of Indian hands across the West, just 115 Paiutes were given private allotments of 160 acres each. Most of these were sold off to non-Indians over the years. About 25 of those allotments remain in Paiute hands today.
As noted, this story of theft and murder, of “peace or death,” is not extraordinary. It’s the story of America. One which ranchers, miners and irrigators, including the gunslinging thugs of the Bundy Bunch, still benefit from today.
(Originally appeared at DailyKos.)