On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Billy Williams released a report in district court which provides the first description of the condition of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a site sacred to the Burns Paiute Tribe after a 41-day armed standoff with militants led by Ammon Bundy.
Disturbingly, Williams writes, “Occupiers appear to have excavated two large trenches and an improvised road on or adjacent to grounds containing sensitive artifacts. At least one of these trenches contains human feces.”
The refuge was once part of the 1.8 million acre Malheur Indian reservation which belonged to several Northern Paiute bands including the nearby Burns Paiute tribe. The buildings the militants occupied demanding the “return” of federal lands to ranchers, miners and loggers contained over 4,000 artifacts and maps of graves and other culturally significant sites on the refuge.
“That whole area is an artifact area,” Jarvis Kennedy, Burns Paiute tribal council member told ICTMN, “If you just walk across there you’ll see chips on the ground where someone made an arrowhead. It’s everywhere.”
When asked what he thought of the latrines Kennedy said, “Just see this…this is their mindset—not really caring about anything. For them to do that in that area is so disgusting.”
He doesn’t think the militants weren’t simply clueless either, “I think they didn’t care. We did our press conference. We took our stand. They knew.”
The FBI’s Art Crimes Team is handling the investigation of these culturally-sensitive sites. General evidence gathering began on Saturday and the FBI estimates it will take 21 days to process the entire crime scene.
“We want to ensure our archaeology department is involved in the investigation,” Burns Paiute tribal chairwoman Charlotte Roderique insists, “Praying there hasn’t been too much damage, but definitely concerned about the disturbance of any remains or anything like that. Because this the cruelest thing anyone can do.”
“Still,” Roderique adds, “So thankful for all the Native nations—all the groups out there that supported us through this whole thing. Knowing that other people cared has meant a lot. Knowing here are people out there who can understand our situation, our concern about our ancestors’ remains. Even tribes that have their own issues going on regarding archaeology of the land and ARPA cases that are out there.”
She had received letters of support not only from tribes across the country but from as far away as Peru and from remote Russian communities.
The tribe, itself, will be holding a day of spiritual prayers to cleanse the land. They will send out a notification via tribal newspapers and by word of mouth for others to come and pray with the Paiute people. “We want to cleanse the land,” Roderique says, “and not disturb animal life or the spirits of our people.”
She noted how the occupation has brought her tribe together and even members of the community who have historically been at odds with the tribe.
“At one of the town meetings, right at the beginning, one of the gentlemen who owns a big ranching outfit addressed the meeting and said that his family had been ranching for 5 generations in this area. The first generation was wiped out by fires during the Bannock War, but he said, ‘We’ve worked, we sit at the table with tribal people and make decisions on fish and wildlife and the environment and way to control noxious weeds and I have no animosity toward the tribe.’ I think we all have gotten past the ‘I hate white people/I hate Indians’ interaction.
However, she has received threatening letters, emails and texts from Bundy supporters which she immediately forwards to the FBI. “If it has a Colorado prefix,” Roderique says, “ I can be sure it’s one of the militia people here on their cell phone.”
Although, no one in the tribe is happy with the late militant spokesman LaVoy Finicum’s death after he ran a police blockade and charged police while armed they do wonder if it is tied to his handling of their artifacts in the Youtube video he put out criticizing the way the tribe’s artifacts were stored.
“He [Finicum} had the bag of flints he was waving them and the next day he is dead,” Roderique told ICTMN. “He should never have picked those up and disturbed those spirits who made them. If it is flint arrowheads, someone who was a warrior or was a good hunter—those are the kind who can come back and do these things.”
Her son has been working on archaeological digs for over 20 years and he always purifies himself before and after.
“When you are at a site and going to be looking for our ancestors’ possessions and taking pictures of them you need to prepare yourself. You need to cleanse yourself. Some people say they have bad dreams and talk in their sleep. Tribal people always prepare themselves.”
Ammon Bundy continues to ignore the Burns Paiute tribe’s connection to land which was never ceded in any treaty to the United States. In custody since January 26, he released a statement on Friday through his lawyer saying, “This land belongs to the people. We must get our government in control and back to benefiting the people.”
His father Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who held a standoff in 2014 against federal agents for refusing to pay $1 million in grazing fees owed to the Bureau of Land Management, was arrested a week ago at the Portland airport attempting to join the occupation at Malheur and rally support of the last holdouts. He was denied bail on Tuesday due to being a flight risk and for “lawless and violent” behavior.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven W. Myhre in a memo seeking Cliven Bundy's pretrial detention quoted a Bundy Ranch Facebook post from February 10 that announced Cliven was headed to Oregon and read in part: "WAKE UP PATRIOTS! WAKE UP MILITIA! IT'S TIME!!!!!''
"When he uses the term militia, he's talking about guns,'' Myhre said.
Michelle Fiore, Nevada assemblywoman and Bundy supporter who over a live-streamed phone conversation convinced the last holdouts to leave the refuge, took issue with the description of the Bundy family’s armed resistance as violent.
“This was a bunch of cowboys camping out in the middle of nowhere,” Fiore claimed, “They were exercising their constitutional rights to assemble, to free speech: their right to bear arms.”
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