POLITICS
01/06/2016 05:43 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2016

Tribe Member: 'We Would Have Been Dead By Now' If We Acted Like Oregon Militants

The Paiute tribe says the protesters need to leave.
Burns Paiute Tribal Council Chair Charlotte Rodrique and other members of the tribe speak during a press conference Wednesday
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Burns Paiute Tribal Council Chair Charlotte Rodrique and other members of the tribe speak during a press conference Wednesday in Burns, Oregon.

BURNS, Ore. -- The armed protesters who seized remote federal property in Oregon should leave, the Burns Paiute Tribal Council urged Wednesday. The occupiers claim the federal land rightfully belongs to the mostly white population of eastern Oregon, but Harney County was largely Paiute territory prior to white settlement.

On a foggy Wednesday morning, some of the tribe's nearly 420 members gathered at the top of a snow-packed hill on the Paiute reservation to discuss their concerns about the outsiders. The doors of the meeting center were plastered with signs warning people not to bring firearms inside.

"As a Native, if we were to go out there and fight back like they are, we would have been dead by now," said Carla Teeman, a social services assistant at the tribe.

"They are desecrating one of our sacred traditional cultural properties," said Charlotte Rodrique, the tribal chair. "They are endangering our children and the safety of our community."

The Paiute people inhabit areas of southeast Oregon, Idaho, California and Nevada. The reservation in Burns is about 35 miles from the headquarters of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, which was taken over by the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and their followers on Saturday. The tribe uses the refuge for religious and cultural ceremonies.

A view from the top of a hill on the Paiute reservation in Oregon.
Dana Liebelson
A view from the top of a hill on the Paiute reservation in Oregon.

The occupiers want federal land "returned" to the people of Harney County. But the tribe says its ancestral territory includes the refuge, as well as other federal lands in southeast Oregon.

"Settler pressure and violence eroded the tribe’s claim to land that was nominally reserved to it," Jedediah Purdy wrote in the New Yorker. In 1878, the federal government discontinued the Malheur Indian Reservation and exiled the residents of the reservation to territory in Washington, according to the tribe. Today, the Burns Paiute Reservation is about 1,000 acres, and the tribe owns additional ranch land and grazing allotments.

So far, law enforcement has sought to reach a peaceful solution with the occupiers, and there have been no visible cops at the site. But when her community has family barbecues in the local parks, police circle the block, Teeman said.

Local ranchers claim the federal government is stingy with grazing leases and permits, which hurts their businesses. But, Teeman said, "Our natives suffer, and these people get to come in and live off our land that we should get back."

The Burns Paiute strongly value protecting fish and wildlife resources, Rodrique told HuffPost.

"We don't have big 30-person hunting parties coming in and camping and killing all the elk," she said. "We're losing our tradition, our cultural way of life ... because of the infringement of these ranchers." She'd like to see the occupiers "just pack up and go and get arrested," she added.

Paiute Tribal Sergeant-at-Arms Jarvis Kennedy was even blunter. "They just need to get the hell out of here," he said at the press conference.

Diana Dick, whose husband is on the Paiute council, said that although the militants claim the land has been stolen from the ranchers, "all lands have been stolen from the Indian tribes." She said when she listened to the occupiers speak on the news, "they never mentioned one thing about Indians. I don't even know if they knew Indians live here."

On Wednesday, a reporter asked protester Ammon Bundy about the Paiute claims. "They have a right to be free like everyone else," he said. But, he acknowledged, "I really don't know much about that."

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