There are about 4,000 Native American artifacts from the Burns Paiute Tribe in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, currently under occupation by heavily armed protesters, and the tribe is demanding the government defend those items before its too late. Among other risks, tribal officials worry that the artifacts might end up on eBay if the group is allowed to stay on the land much longer.
It has been just over two weeks since Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, and a group of armed men took over the Malheur refuge. Their goals are to force the government to return the land to private owners and release two local ranchers who were convicted of arson.
The government has maintained a wait-them-out strategy, hoping the armed militants will get tired and leave.
But that isn’t good enough for the Burns Paiute Tribe.
According to the Washington Post, they are urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring criminal charges against Bundy’s group under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
Charlotte Roderique (pictured above), chair of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council, released a statement on the occupation Friday.
“Armed protestors don’t belong here. They continue to desecrate one of our most important sacred sites. They should be held accountable.”
Tribal council member Jarvis Kennedy highlighted one particular fear — that the artifacts could end up for sale.
“They could be on eBay right now — we don’t know. With militia members coming and going freely from the refuge, who knows what’s leaving there?”
The wildlife refuge buildings hold thousands of artifacts that were being researched, along with maps detailing where more relics can be found, according to the Canada Journal. Videos of the Malheur occupiers show them using government computers containing the maps and other sensitive materials.
According to Carla Burnside, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s refuge archeologist, those maps make the artifacts even more valuable for potential sellers.
“There’s a huge market for artifacts, especially artifacts that have provenance, where you can identify where they came from.”
Bundy said Friday that he and his group have no interest in the Burns Paiute Tribe artifacts and will deliver them to the Native Americans if requested to do so. Roughly a month ago, Bundy said he wanted to see the Burns Tribe freed from the federal government as well.
Ammon’s brother, Ryan Bundy, reportedly said their group does recognize the Burns Paiute Tribe had a claim to the land, once.
“We also recognize that the Native Americans had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim. There are things to learn from cultures of the past, but the current culture is the most important.”
Even if the Oregon occupiers don’t intend to harm the Burns Paiute Tribe heritage, there is still a risk.
The Malheur refuge contains about 300 prehistoric sites, including ancient villages and burial sites. The group has driven road graders, heavy vehicles, and cattle through the area, potentially damaging those archaeological sites.
As Jarvis Kennedy explained, “They’ve got their horse running around there. Who knows what they’re stomping on?”
The Burns Paiute Tribe has a long, bleak history with cattle ranchers. When white settlers crossed the Oregon trail and settled in the area, their animals decimated the already-sparse land. Members of the tribe started to fight back, prompting the federal government to send soldiers and kill off many of the area’s natives in what was called the Snake Indian War of the 1860s. The conflict ended with the tribal members being shackled and marched hundreds of miles to a reservation.
The tribe now insists that if the Malheur refuge should return to the people, as the Oregon occupiers say, it should return to them. But Kennedy sees at least one positive aspect of the feud.
“The good thing about it [is] now the whole world knows about the Burns Paiute Tribe. Nobody knew us or that we existed a week and a half ago.”
[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]