THE BLOG
01/25/2016 06:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Right to the Land: Native Americans and Militias in Oregon and Nevada

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Neglected cattle on BLM lands and Indigenous petroglyphs at Mah'ha-gah-doo (Gold Butte)

Photos taken by Fawn Douglas, Jan. 16, 2016

Battles over land, resources, and who has a right to them are central to the history of the United States. Today, this type of conflict continues with the armed occupation of federal buildings in Oregon, led by members of the Bundy family who organized a similar protest two years ago in Nevada.

The militia in Oregon has brought media attention and debate about how the U.S. government should respond. Somewhat perplexed, Native Americans and others are asking the question: why have authorities been so slow to react in Oregon and when will those who are breaking the law be prosecuted for doing the same in Nevada?

Though the Bundy militias have made a series of confusing comments over the years, their main goal has been to eradicate U.S. government oversight of public lands. In short, they want to eliminate federal lands, including national parks, so it can become private property.

At the same time, Native Americans continue to fight for their sacred lands and are joining with allies from various interest groups to protect the environment in the same areas the Bundy militia is attempting to privatize. The Burns band of Northern Paiute have been working to secure their traditional sites in Harney County, Oregon, just as people from the Moapa and Las Vegas bands of Southern Paiute have been working to conserve Mah'ha-gah-doo (Gold Butte) in Clark County, Nevada.

While they don't always grab the headlines, Indigenous struggles to protect their lands show that colonialism has not ended in the 21st century.

"If you think the Indian wars are over, then think again"

If anyone has the right to demand that the U.S. government hand back federal lands to the people it's Native Americans. For hundreds of years, the federal government has stripped territory from Indigenous tribes who have continually fought to regain their lands as sovereign nations.

One of these many stories is that of two sisters, Carrie and Mary Dann, and other Western Shoshone in Nevada. Since the early 1970s, they fought the U.S. government to maintain their right to graze horses and cattle on lands held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Even though Western Shoshone territory was protected in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, this did not stop the federal government from a massive land grab of 24 million acres in parts of Nevada and surrounding states. Nor did it stop the U.S. from building a nuclear bombing facility on these lands in 1951. Since then, 928 nuclear tests have been conducted at the site, which have contaminated and desecrated the land.

In 1979, courts awarded the Western Shoshone $26 million for territory taken by the U.S. government, but the tribe refused to take the money at the time. Instead they wanted their lands returned -- something the U.S. rarely does even after courts rule that lands were taken illegally.

Even though the Western Shoshone legally proved their lands belonged to them, the government denied the Dann sisters and others the right to graze livestock on their ancestral territory. In the 1990s and 2000s, the BLM confiscated their livestock and began to sell the animals to pay $3 million in trespassing fines they received over the years.

Afterwards, Carrie Dann said, "I was indigenous and in one single evening they made me indigent. If you think the Indian wars are over, then think again."

In 2006, the United Nations' Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found that the Western Shoshone were "being denied their traditional rights to land." The U.N. found that the U.S. government harassed and intimidated Western Shoshone people "through the imposition of grazing fees, trespass and collection notices, impounding of horse and livestock, restrictions on hunting, fishing, and gathering, as well as arrests, which gravely disturb the enjoyment of their ancestral lands."

For decades, rancher Cliven Bundy similarly refused to follow laws that prohibit cattle grazing on public lands in Nevada. This led to an armed standoff between his militia and federal law enforcement in 2014, where the federal government eventually retreated and has not returned since.

So why is it that the U.S. government acted so differently with the Western Shoshone when compared to the Bundy family?

Reclaiming the Land from Domestic Terrorists

A few weeks ago the two sons of rancher Clive Bundy, Ammon and Ryan, along with a militia of around 20 people took over several remote federal buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. Though the motives of the armed protestors have not always been clear, one of the things they're calling for are commuted prison sentences for ranchers Steven Hammond and his father Dwight.

Federal courts found the Hammonds guilty of arson for fires that affected both the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and other federally protected areas in eastern Oregon. In 2001, Steven Hammond and his hunting party intentionally started fires to cover up deer poaching on public lands. After handing out matches, Hammond told his crew they were going to "light up the whole country on fire," but later lied to federal authorities on the cause of the fire.

After a decade, a federal court sentenced the Hammonds to the minimum five years in prison, where they are now serving out their time. While the Hammonds may not agree with their punishment, they do not support the current militia occupation in Oregon.

Still, Ammon Bundy complains that the U.S. government has been expanding wildlife refuges "at the expense of the ranchers and miners." He hopes the ranchers "will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control."

Ironically, the wildlife refuge and surrounding area are the ancestral homelands of the Northern Paiute. Lost in most reporting is the fact that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was once part of 1.78 million acres of the Malheur Indian Reservation, which was taken from the Northern Paiute in violation of an unratified treaty from 1868.

Over a hundred years ago, when the U.S. government and ranchers were on the same side, they fraudulently confiscated these Indigenous lands. They treated the Northern Paiute much like the Western Shoshone and hundreds of other tribes across the country, forcing them onto American Indian reservations on small portions of refuse land. The Burns Paiute today have a reservation of only 760 acres.

The Bundy militias are not concerned with the land claims of Indigenous peoples. Ryan Bundy stated that they want to "restore the rights to people so they can use the land and resources," in reference to privatization of public lands for logging, mining, and ranching. While these militias wrap their rhetoric around fighting for the "people," they are driven by a rugged individualism that seeks to profit from exploiting the land's natural resources without federal regulation.

"We also recognize that the Native Americans had the claim to the land," said Bundy, "but they lost that claim." He continued: "There are things to learn from cultures of the past, but the current culture is the most important."

It's clear that these militia members do not include Native Americans as part of the "people" whose grievances equally matter. Instead, on the Oregon militia's website, they compare themselves to U.S. Revolutionary members who protected colonists from "Indian attacks" and threats from the "savages." This language is replicated from the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

In short, these militia occupations are the same colonial histories of the United States remixed in the 21st century.

The Fight to Protect Gold Butte (Mah'ha-gah-doo)

Today the Burns Paiute and other Indigenous nations are working with the U.S. government to preserve their lands, which is why around 4,000 artifacts of the Northern Paiute are located at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These artifacts are currently held hostage by the militia occupation, but support has come in from various groups across the nation, including First Nations peoples in Canada, ranchers who respect Indigenous rights, and other groups across the country.

Many Native American tribes are also standing with the Burns Paiute. Members from bands of the Southern Paiute have recently held actions in solidarity with what's going on in Oregon. "We're supporting the Burns Paiute in any way we can," says organizer and Las Vegas Paiute member Fawn Douglas.

Currently, members of the Moapa and Las Vegas Paiute are working with environmental groups in southern Nevada to bring needed protection to the area of Gold Butte -- a historical site that has also been threatened by Bundy militias in Clark County, Nevada. Known to the Southern Paiute as Mah'ha-gah-doo, Gold Butte contains endangered wildlife, Native American artifacts, and ancient petroglyphs.

Since the 2014 Bundy occupation, large swaths of Gold Butte have remained a pseudo-militarized zone, where emaciated cattle illegally roam freely and militia threaten federal employees. Just last summer, the BLM ordered all of its workers out of the area after unknown assailants used gunfire to intimidate surveyors. The BLM hasn't returned since.

Without protection, Gold Butte is left vulnerable to vandalism, unregulated tourism, and invasive cattle grazing. This is why the Sierra Club, Battle Born Progress, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, and Friends of Gold Butte have been working with members of the Moapa and Las Vegas Paiute to preserve 350,000 acres as a national monument or national conservation area.

These groups have come together for rallies and service trips where they clean up trash at the site. In this way, various communities have joined together to protect the natural beauty and sacred space of Mah'ha-gah-doo for environmental, recreational, and cultural reasons.

"These sites are sacred to us," says William Anderson of the Moapa band of Southern Paiute, "that's part of our history, part of our culture. That's who we are."

"The same battles that my ancestors had"

The federal government's retreat in Nevada and silence in Oregon allow the Bundy's misguided agenda to continue to embolden others. If the U.S. government refuses to stop these threats then it once again fails to uphold treaties and disrespects the national sovereignty of Native Americans.

Concerning the occupation in Oregon, certain Burns Paiute council members are wondering when the U.S. government is going to show up to handle the situation. When asked why he thought the U.S. response to the Bundy militia was different than how his people had been treated in times past, council member Jarvis Kennedy didn't hesitate to answer: "Because they're white. That's about it."

Kennedy also said that if his tribe acted like the Bundy militia they'd already be in jail or worse. "It gets tiring," says Kennedy, "It's the same battles that my ancestors had and now it's just a bunch of different cavalry wearing a bunch of different coats."

Considering the facts over U.S. history, it's hard to disagree.

If you would like to support making Gold Butte (Mah'ha-gah-doo) a national monument in Nevada, please add your name to the petition.