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Adversity offers benefits for remote Oregon tribe

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BURNS, Ore. - The Burns Paiute Tribe is the smallest tribe in Oregon with a reservation on the edge of Burns that measures just 871 acres. But don't let the size fool you - they have a lot going on.

Diane Teeman, the newly appointed cultural specialist, explained the early history.

''After the major era of treaty making, which occurred from the 1840s to the mid-1860s, there were a few treaties being negotiated, but none made it through Congress for ratification. One that didn't make it through was the treaty with the Snakes in 1868 which was signed by the Paiute head men of all of southeastern Oregon with just one exception. Shortly later, a reservation was created by executive order and it was different from other treaties in that no land was deeded and no rights were ceded. It basically stated that the Paiutes would stop fighting and lay down their arms. Because the treaty was never ratified, we're not officially a treaty tribe. It's called a historic tribe.''

The tribe gained land through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which provided funding to purchase land and begin programs. The Paiutes are situated on a number of reservations, including several in Nevada and two others in Oregon. The Burns Paiute Tribe numbers about 350 enrolled members who maintain contacts and have family ties with other Paiute tribes.

Despite the small size, the tribe has become one of the larger employers in the county with 64 people employed by the tribe. The casino employs others, but the relative remoteness and distance from sizeable communities has prevented it from being the financial success that other tribes have realized.

Some tribal members work for a nearby motor coach company where motor homes are built. Others work on ranches or for the U.S. Forest Service. Despite that, unemployment rates remain pretty high.

There is a small medical clinic with doctors visiting on a weekly or monthly basis. The social services branch has a juvenile crime prevention and tribal youth program where they meet with kids on a weekly basis. The tribe maintains drug and alcohol programs and a mental health program, and there is a general assistance program that includes child care and food distribution.

Culture remains a big focus and a culture day is held monthly. Seventy-five people attended the most recent event. An estimated 20 - 30 percent of the population still speaks the Native language and much discussion is directed at increasing those statistics.

The Fish and Wildlife branch is particularly active. They are involved with mitigation for the Hells Canyon Complex which includes the Hells Canyon, Oxbow and Brownlee dams on the Snake River. Those dams are coming up for 50-year relicensing which could possibly lead to additional land purchases by the tribe for hunting, fishing or cultural purposes. The tribe is asking for a $45 million mitigation package.

The tribe owns two large ranches purchased in recent years through mitigation funding. The Jones Ranch was purchased in 2000 and is managed strictly for wildlife benefit, basically through habitat improvement. It has 6,500 deeded acres plus 28,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and state grazing allotments over which the tribe has management control. Another ranch in Logan Valley adds another 1,760 acres of deeded property. Its very different habitat allows a variety of management styles. Seven people are employed in managing these properties.

Salmon and steelhead were lost due to hydropower systems, and current efforts are taking place to document and monitor populations of bull and red band trout. Fish ponds are also being considered to increase tribal harvest and mitigation might help fund this project.

Teeman philosophized about the lack of a treaty and small land base.

''Initially it was devastating, but culturally I think it's added to the degree of community cohesion people had that were here. It provided for cultural retention. Many cultural practices and values are still very active.''

She feels that many treaty tribes haven't retained that same degree of culture.

''I'm looking to see why we have that in spite of the adversity, when other tribes that had it easier haven't retained as much.''