Last week, a video was released on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page with a headline-grabbing message: “Share! Breaking Update Burns Oregon BLM left Native American artifacts to rot in mice droppings!”
The video featured LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher who is part of the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge led by Bundy family members, examining Paiute artifacts stored in dusty boxes at the refuge saying, “This is how the Native American heritage has been treated, I don’t think it’s acceptable. The rightful owners need to come back and claim these belongings.”
Charlotte Roderique, the Burns Paiute tribal chairwoman told ICTMN via email, “At this time the artifacts are evidence at a federal crime scene. We cannot accept these artifacts and subject ourselves to possible prosecution. Those people at the refuge are not there because they are "good and caring." I do not believe or trust them.”
In response to Finnicum’s accusations of poor storage and treatment of the tribe’s cultural patrimony, Megan Nagle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson released this statement to ICTMN:
“We are confident these artifacts entrusted to the Refuge are cared for with dignity and respect.
With the full knowledge and blessing of the Burns Paiute tribe, the Refuge is home to a number of artifacts that have been found on the Refuge during studies carried out to learn more about the history and use of the lands by their ancestors. These artifacts have been curated and stored under lock and key, until the illegal occupants violated the security of the Refuge.
Additionally, there are other artifacts that have been turned over to the Refuge by third parties. Those items were waiting for the discussions to be held between the tribe and the Refuge as to how they should be re-homed. These items were also under lock and key.
For the individuals who have broken into the secure facilities at the Refuge to portray themselves and their actions as anything other than the violation it is, is simply another fabrication.”
The Burns Paiute tribal council had told ICTMN in an earlier interview that the entire U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff have been ordered to stay home for their own safety. Recently, however, staff members have spoken anonymously to local media to share their concerns about the harm the occupation will have on their on-going restoration work at the refuge and the militants’ continued efforts to single them out as agents of the federal government--leaving them and their families as targets for possible retaliation and violence.
On Friday, Roderique issued a second letter to the Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the FBI director James Comey demanding the enforcement of federal laws and treaty provisions to protect the tribe’s heritage. The refuge buildings hold some 4,000 tribal artifacts, site records, maps and confidential documents.
In light of this, the tribe is demanding that the federal authorities stop allowing the militants free passage in and out of the refuge.
“The video clearly shows they have unfettered access to the Tribe's sacred artifacts,” the chairwoman writes in her letter to federal officials, “The militants have also built a road through the Refuge and taken down a fence. We fear that the demolition and construction activities of the militants may have harmed our burial grounds and disturbed tribal artifacts.”
She is also concerned that “the lawbreakers who occupy the Malheur headquarters continue to seek outside financial support for their efforts. We fear that our tribal cultural patrimony provides an all too easy funding source for the militants.”
Every day more militants arrive in Burns, Oregon. Taylor McKinnon, public land campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity who is at the refuge as part of a counter-protest to the Bundy land grab told ICTMN, “having an armed insurgency in town is causing a tremendous amount of stress. There are two militia groups: one led by the Bundys at the refuge building and another at the entrance (the Idaho-based militia, the Pacific Patriots Network). There are a lot of assault rifles. It’s scary.”
This escalation in tensions in the community is also noted by Chairwoman Roderique in her letter to the Attorney General and the FBI. “Recently many of our people have been subjected to harassment by individuals who either came here to support the protestors or have been emboldened by their example to voice bigotry and hatred toward the Indigenous people of Harney county.”
Although, Oregon Governor Kate Brown refused to comment to ICTMN on the Burns Paiute tribe’s demands for federal protection of their cultural heritage, the governor made similar demands in her own letter to federal authorities to stop the free movement of criminals on the refuge and for the occupation to be ended. In an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, she was more explicit saying the “situation is absolutely intolerable” and that “the very fabric of the Burns community is being ripped apart by this occupation.”
Roderique says that they are in communication with the governor’s office and that the tribe has been promised the state’s commitment to full prosecution of the lawbreakers under Oregon law. The tribe will consult with the State Archaeologist next week and the State Historical Preservation Office to coordinate on potential charges against the militants.
The refusal of the tribe to work with the armed occupiers at the refuge left Finnicum visibly confused in an interview this weekend with local TV station KOIN 6.
“For some reason they don’t want to have a dialogue,” he told the reporter, “It doesn’t kind of hold, doesn’t seem reasonable to me where a whole group of white men come and disturb the ground, take it, throw it in boxes for 30 years down in a dark basement and now we bring it to light and say, ‘Hey, would you like to have this?’ and somehow they don’t.”
It appears, however, the militants found one Native American woman, who they identify as Shirley Warren of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, to visit the refuge. She is seen in a video released on Sunday confirming Finnicum’s assertions and apparently in support of the occupation.
In the meantime, Ammon Bundy, the leader of the occupation, announced the convening of a “Citizens’ Grand Jury” in part to try the sheriff of Harney County for dereliction of duty because he did not stand up to federal intrusion and protect the militants. At a meeting last week, Sheriff David Ward told the community that his wife has had to leave the community due to fear of retaliation and his elderly parents have been subjected to harassment and intimidation by armed militants.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty has once again cancelled a scheduled community meeting saying it, “seems prudent in order to maintain the safety of our community and everyone in it, and because an open and honest conversation cannot take place in this type of atmosphere. Further, I will not give these agitators what they want most, which is attention.”
The man Bundy has chosen to serve as judge of this “grand jury” is from Florida, Joaquin Mariano DeMoreta-Folch, a St. Augustine Tea Party government accountability chairman. Although not possessing any true legal power, these self-appointed courts have a history of “indicting” public officials and subjecting them to both physical and paper harassment through spurious lien filings for years afterwards.
Demoreta-Folch has a controversial history of opposing the establishment of wildlife refuges in Florida. During a county commissioners meeting in 2011, he led a group of Tea Partiers to attack local community members in favor of establishing the “St. Augustine Historical Park and National Seashore.” Reportedly, he screamed at them and members of his group, which included the assistant county administrator, shouted “Hitler” while making gun noises at park supporters like they were shooting at them.
Ed Slavin, a local St. Augustine resident and park proponent, told ICTMN “He’s a nut. An absolute weirdo. He has emotional problems with federal land ownership—if he’s the judge he’s prejudged the case.”
At the refuge on Saturday a New Mexico rancher, Adrian Sewell, took part in a ceremony where he formally renounced his grazing contract with the federal government. Sewell purchased the ranch four years ago and is originally from Texas. Social media users have already begun looking into his background and have found news reports from 14 years ago that claim he attacked 8 other Oklahoma State University students with an ax and received five years' probation and ordered to undergo alcohol-abuse treatment.
After Sewell signed the document, Finnicum held up a list of people he claimed were ready to fight or defend the rancher from the government, saying, “We will stop everything and come to your aid.” The crowd of 120 cheered.
According to the governor, the occupation is costing Oregon $100,000 per week. The Center for Western Priorities is maintaining a running “Live Ticker” on their website to the total cost, both federal, state and local, to the occupation. As of the writing this story, according to their ticker, the cost is over $3.1 million.
Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, creators of Not Your Mascot. She has been published in Telesur, Earth Island Journal and the Nation and interviewed on MSNBC and DemocracyNow and Native American Calling. She has a forthcoming book called “Not Your Disappearing Indian” and podcast. On twitter: @jfkeeler