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Oregon’s Land Dispute: Who Are the Original Owners?

The armed militia occupation of Native land in Oregon reveals the living history of genocide and land theft against Native Americans.

When Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who led an armed standoff against the US Bureau of Land Management in 2014, charged into the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, he said he was going to return the land from an overreaching federal government to its “original owners” he was not thinking of the Burns Paiute Tribe.

And he has since admitted he knows very little about them.

When he charged into town proclaiming he was “getting ranchers back to ranching, getting the loggers back to logging, getting the miners back to mining” the “original owners” he was thinking about? Without a doubt they were European Americans like himself.

But in fact, it is the Burns Paiute Tribe and other Northern Paiute tribes who are the “original owners” and possess the strongest legal claim to the land, particularly to the wildlife refuge which was once part of their former Malheur Indian Reservation. A 1.78 million acre reservation that was later opened to white settlement after the Paiute and another tribe, the Bannock, facing starvation rose up against settler depredations.

Exactly 173 years ago this month, knee deep in snow, 500 Paiutes were force-marched, shackled in twos, some 350 miles northward to the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington state. I imagine Bundy had no idea that his takeover was effectively commemorating this tragedy.

In a press conference Wednesday, Burns Paiute Tribal chairperson Charlotte Roderique had stern words for Bundy:

“We don’t want people who have no interests at all ramrodding themselves into the discussion. I understand Mr. Bundy is going back to Las Vegas. He can give back land to the Paiute there. For those who don’t know, our tribe ranged all over Nevada, Utah and California and Southwestern Idaho. We are all interrelated. We all speak the same language, some variation in dialect but we can understand each other. I think it is important that these people know they are not just affecting the Burns Paiute.”

Indeed, both the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and the land that the Bundy’s have been illegally grazing cattle on were never ceded by treaty to the United States. The Northern Paiute signed a treaty with the United States government in 1868, but it was never ratified by Congress.

The treaty process represents the US government’s recognition of the pre-existing sovereignty of the tribes over the lands they wished to acquire. Under international law, a sovereign nation cannot treaty away its existence so, the implication that signing a treaty extinguished the sovereignty of any tribe in the United States is a false one. Tribes are still sovereign. It is only the exercise of that sovereignty that is limited by the power of the US government.

After the Paiutes “Trail of Tears,” some tribal members did find their way back to Burns, Oregon. However, they were landless and considered outlaws. They lived on the edges of town working for the white ranchers who had taken their land. Finally, in 1928, the Egan Land Company gave them 10 acres of land just outside the city of Burns. It was the old city dump which the tribal members cleaned and drilled a well, and built houses on.

In 1969 the United States finally compensated the tribe for the land taken. Tribal members were paid at 1890 prices: .28 to .45 cents per acre.

Chairperson Roderique said at the press conference, “The one thing I’m really proud of is the tenacity of our people. Four hundred-twenty people are descendants of people who were able to get back here from Yakama.”

Today, the tribe has regained federal recognition and has 420 members. Their population before the US army declared war on them in the late 1860’s was 2,000. They have still not recovered in numbers, but the tribe oversees over 12,000 acres and 1,000 is held in trust.

Some 11,000 acres are owned by tribal members but ownership is so fractionated that Roderique notes, “It’s hard to develop or do anything with the land when you have to get permission from 58 other people. Those lands are pretty much in limbo and are administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

Asked about the Burns Paiutes, Bundy said, “They have rights as well. I would like to see them be free from the federal government as well. They’re controlled and regulated by the federal government very tightly and I think they have a right to be free like everybody else.”

Roderick responded humorously saying she was, “trying to compose a letter for when they return all this land to us.”

The fact that many Americans like Bundy are completely unaware of the existence and sovereignty of tribes, even on lands they themselves live, is the result of a long history of clouding Native American peoples’ very real political status as sovereign nations. They are nations which have a status higher than states, and certainly than the county Bundy wishes to restore the land to. Also, states outside of the original 13 colonies have no pre-existing sovereignty to the federal government over any of their landbase. Only tribes do.

The US likes to disingenuously hold itself as an arbiter of fairness internationally, even while long pursuing a policy of denigrating Native American title to their lands, if not outright stealing it, domestically. Under US Constitutional law, a papal bull written in 1454 by Pope Nicholas V which holds that only “discovering, Christian nations” can have title to the land is still the law of the land. It is called the Doctrine of Discovery and was cited as recently as 2005 by the US Supreme Court in City of Sherrill, NY v. Oneida Nation, “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery’ … fee title (ownership) to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign-first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.”

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has rightly called the Doctrine of Discovery “the foundation of the violation of their (Indigenous people) human rights.”

Until the US renounces this doctrine and more Americans fully comprehend the weak, legal claims they actually have to the land they live on under international law, white men like Bundy will continue in their folly, their ignorance and perpetuating injustices against the Native American nations that persist all around them despite genocide.

There are now 566 federally recognized tribes. Scratch the surface of any land issue in the United States and you will find the original owners – and they won’t be from Europe.

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