I woke up this morning to the news that heavily-armed white ranchers (some call them “yeehawdists”) had taken over Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. This is one of the premier wildlife refuges in the West; I had visited it last summer. Yellow-headed blackbirds perched on cattails while hundreds of bank swallows swooped overhead. From the visitor center I watched a couple young great-horned owls in a cottonwood while three species of hummingbirds danced around the feeders on the porch.
That porch is now occupied by radicalized whites, led by Ryan and Ammon Bundy. They are the sons of Nevada ranching pariah Cliven Bundy, who successfully frightened off the feds in an armed standoff in 2014; he still owes over $1 million in grazing fees. In Ryan Bundy’s own words today, they are “willing to kill and be killed if necessary.”
Why are they there? It’s hard to say. They are vague about their reasons—stuff about land and resources and Constitutional rights. The precipitating cause is the legal problems of two convicted arsonists: Dwight Hammond and his son Steven. They are cattle ranchers who own land adjacent to the refuge. In 2001 and 2006, they deliberately started fires on their own land — they claim to clear brush; the feds claim to cover up shooting small herds of deer– but the fires spread to federal lands. They were convicted of arson in 2012. Under an anti-terrorism law that governs mandatory minimum sentencing for arson on federal property, they should have received five-year jail terms. However, the judge concluded that sending a white rancher to prison for that long for such a paltry crime would “shock the conscience”, so Dwight and Steven served three months and one year in prison, respectively. The federal government appealed, however, and won. The Hammonds are supposed to report back to prison on Monday, January 4, to serve out the remainder of their five-year terms.
Saturday, January 2, there was a rally in support of them at their house in Burns. Enter the Bundys. They arrived from out of state and steered a group of fellow radicalized ranchers thirty miles south to Malheur, where they overtook the refuge headquarters. They occupied the buildings and called for fellow radicals from around the West to converge at Malheur to support them. All schools in Harney County have been canceled due to the threat of violence.
While the Hammonds have disavowed any connection to the Bundys, they do have a long history of conflict with the wildlife refuge. They claim a right to run their cattle across it without a permit, based on a “historic right of way” since 1871. “We have a right to use it,” they claim. Their cattle have trampled habitat restoration areas and destroyed streams and wetlands. They made death threats against the refuge manager in 1986, 1988, 1991, and 1994. In that last year, the NWR revoked their permit to graze on refuge lands. Both Hammonds were then arrested for obstructing the building of a fence around the refuge, but were eventually released after Representative Bob Smith (R-OR) got involved. The deeper issue, in which the Hammonds, Bundy, and Smith all agree, is their perceived right to run cattle wherever and whenever they want on federal land.
The land in question, however, was stolen from the Northern Paiute, specifically the Wadatika band, known today as the Burns Paiute. Any argument that claims a right from 1871 must consider the years immediately prior to that.
A sign at a rest area along Highway 20 just west of Burns tells the story. Ranchers flooded the area in the late 1800s, resulting in armed conflicts with the Paiute band. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant created a 1.8 million acre Malheur Reservation, giving the Wadatika much of the lush farmland east of Burns. The reservation was meaningless. Within four years, choice portions of it were carved up and given to white ranchers for their cattle. In the words of the highway marker:
“Denied access to traditional lands, the Wadatika soon faced starvation. Continued encroachment, combined with the US Government’s failure to fulfill promises of food, shelter, education, and agricultural supplies, resulted in open warfare—the Bannock War of 1878. Upon defeat in 1879, the Paiute were forcibly marched to distant reservations [near Yakima, WA]. Congress terminated the Malheur Reservation in 1883 and made the land available for settlement.”
Today, the rich farmland that was the reservation is all in private hands (over 90% white); the mountain portions are mostly held by the federal government in the form of Malheur National Forest. The Burns Paiute Reservation is now just 11,944 acres, located just north of Burns. The tribe is largely excluded from the farmland it used to hold. Impoverished by a century of forced removal and other injustices, they now lease some grazing land to white ranchers for income.
Ammon Bundy has declared, “We are using the wildlife refuge as a place for individuals across the United States to come and assist in helping the people of Harney County claim back their lands and resources.” I’m guessing he is not including the Burns Paiute.
The land just south of the Malheur Reservation, incorporating Malheur Lake and adjacent wetlands, all historic Paiute land, was retained by the federal government. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt declared it the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), largely to protect egrets that had been decimated by plume hunters. In 1935, the government purchased the Blitzen Valley south of the lake from the Eastern Oregon Land and Livestock Company, adding to the refuge.
Since then, petulant cowboys and federal authorities have been fighting over the spoils of ethnic cleansing. White pioneers and ranchers have a long history of being treated with kid gloves by the federal government. Whether they be gold miners exterminating Native tribes in California in the 1850s, taking over the Black Hills and contriving a war to steal them in 1875, running their cattle thru the Kaibab Reservation in 1915, or Cliven Bundy occupying Shoshone land in 2014, the federal government has ultimately backed off and let the white pioneers have their way. When Oglala Sioux staged a similar take-over of Wounded Knee in 1973, in part due to cattle grazing by white farmers, they were met by federal snipers, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers within hours. When Mary and Carrie Dann, Western Shoshone, took a similar stand for grazing rights, their cattle were rounded up by helicopter.
Make no mistake that being a domestic terrorist with impunity is a privilege of being white. Jokes are spreading across the internet comparing these dangerous armed radicals with Tamir Rice in Cleveland with a toy gun, or Eric Garner in New York brazenly selling loose cigarettes; people of color whom the authorities dealt with far more quickly and aggressively.
The Bundys need to be arrested and imprisoned; they are a danger to the public. If anyone deserves special rights to access Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it is the Burns Paiute, who are still owed considerable compensation. They just aren’t waving guns in the air.