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The Native American Tribe With a Claim to the Contested Land in Burns, Oregon

The Burns Paiute tribe has got more of a right to that land than Ammon Bundy, or anyone else for that matter.
Members of the Burns Paiute tribe look on during a press conference on January 6, 2016, in Burns, Oregon. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Members of the Burns Paiute tribe look on during a press conference on January 6, 2016, in Burns, Oregon. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It's been five days since armed militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, part of the over 16 million acres that the Bureau of Land Management owns in Burns, Oregon. Led by Ammon Bundy, the right-wing militia's first goal was ostensibly to protect the rights of two local ranchers who were sentenced to five years in prison after setting fire to public lands. Their second? These self-styled "Citizens for Constitutional Freedom" want the government to relinquish ownership of that land.

Now another owner has spoken up—the Burns Paiute tribe.

Ian Kullgren of the Oregonian reported on yesterday's press conference with tribal leaders:

The tribe once occupied a large swath of land that includes the Malheur National Wildlife refuge — archaeological evidence dates back 6,000 years — but they were forced out in the late 1870s. Before settlers arrived, the tribe used it as a wintering ground, said Charlotte Rodrique, the tribal chair.

"We as a tribe view that this is still our land no matter who's living on it," Rodrique said.

In 1868, the tribe signed a treaty with the federal government that requires the government to protect natives' safety. According to the tribe, the federal government promised to prosecute "any crime or injury perpetrated by any white man upon the Indians."

Members of the Burns Paiute tribal council also pointed out that, despite the mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States, they haven't resorted to violence to fix their problems even as access to these sacred lands is being limited. From Reuters:

Tribal officials said the government has become increasingly bureaucratic about allowing the tribe to catch trout, bass and perch in the rivers lacing the mountains and to hunt elk and deer in the woods.

At yesterday's press conference, tribal council member Jarvis Kennedy had some pointed opening remarks. "What if it was a bunch of Natives that went out there and overtook that, or any federal land?" he asked.

As for the Bundy-led occupation, it's unclear if the militants will be leaving any time soon, or even if they do in fact have substantial local support. From NPR:

Ryan Bundy, one of the group's leaders, had said Monday that they would leave if local residents asked them to. But on Tuesday, he reversed that stance to OPB, saying that "the purpose of this whole thing is getting people excited. And [the people in Harney County] are excited that this is taking place."

Not only do the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom ignore the Burns Paiute claim to the land, they have made it a conspiracy in their revisionist history, as Aaron Bady wrote for Pacific Standard:

They have no time for how the Army re-settled the northern Paiute in the Malheur Indian reservation in 1872—emptying Harney County for settlement by white people—nor how those same white settlers demanded (and got) the reservation dis-established in 1879 so they could have that land too.

The Bundy family claims they want to defend people from federal tyranny. But, apparently, that doesn't include all people.