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Paiute Indian leader to Oregon militia: ‘This is still our land’

On January 2, armed right-wing militia members seized control of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters to protest the pending imprisonment of Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond. The father and son were convicted of setting fire to federal land to clear cattle grazing space without the required permit. Leaders of the occupation include Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose refusal to pay decades’ worth of cattle grazing fees prompted a standoff with federal agents in 2014.

Militiamen involved in the Oregon standoff, some of whom say they are ready to “kill and be killed” if necessary, claim the federal government does not own the land they are occupying and want authorities in Washington to “return” it to ranchers, loggers and miners to use.

“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough,” Ammon Bundy explained to reporters. “Their lands and their resources have been taken from them to the point where it’s putting them literally in poverty.”

But leaders of various Paiute Indian tribes, who are native to the region and have lived there for thousands of years, angrily dismissed the militia’s assertion and accused them of desecrating their sacred ancestral lands.

“The protesters have no right to this land. It belongs to the native people who live here,” Charlotte Rodrique, leader of the Burns Paiute tribe, told reporters at a Wednesday morning press conference at the tribe’s cultural center, located about 30 miles (50km) from the preserve.

“This land belonged to the Paiute people as wintering grounds long before the first settlers, ranchers and trappers ever arrived here,” Rodrique said. “We haven’t given up our rights to the land. We have protected sites there. We still use the land.”

“Armed protesters don’t belong here,” Rodrique added. “By their actions they are desecrating one of our sacred traditional cultural properties. They are endangering our children, and the safety of our community, and they need to leave. Armed confrontation is not the answer.”’

Democracy Now! reports leaders of the Northern Paiute tribe insisted that if the occupied land should be returned to anyone, it should be handed over to the tribe.

Jarvis Kennedy, a member of the Northern Paiute tribe, asked, “What if it was a bunch of natives that went out there and overtook that or any federal land?”

“We weren’t removed; we were killed and ran off our land, marched in snow out there hundreds of miles to forts,” Kennedy added. “When they finally let us go, we didn’t have no place to go. Our land was already taken. They gave us 10 acres at the city dump. Think about that.”

Kennedy said the militia occupiers “need to get the hell out of here.”

Indian Country Today reports President Ulysses S. Grant established the Malheur Indian Reservation for the Northern Paiute in 1872, with white settlement encroaching on the land until the Bannock War of 1878, which ended with vanquished Paiutes and Bannocks forced from the reservation and scattered throughout the West.

Rodrique said the militia’s demand that the government return “their” land was laughable.

“For them to say they want to give the land back to their rightful owners—well, I just had to laugh at that,” she said at Wednesday’s press conference. “When they talk about returning land, I know they didn’t mean us. When [the US government] wanted us to give up the land, we didn’t do it. We have never given up our aboriginal rights there. We do as well feel there—because this is still our land.”

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