Editor’s Note: Since January 2, a group of armed anti-government demonstrators led by Ammon Bundy have been occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. The demonstrators are demanding that the federal government give control of the land and its resources back to the ranchers and people of the county. The irony for many in the Native community is that the land in question was in the past Northern Paiute land. NAM spoke with Oregon-based Navajo and Yankton Dakota Sioux writer Jacqueline Keeler, who has been reporting on the occupation for Indian Country Today Media Network. She is the creator of Not Your Mascot and is finishing her first book “Not Your Disappearing Indian: An American Indian Manifesto for the 21st Century.”
What are you seeing from the Native community in terms of a response to what’s going on in Oregon?
I was not aware of the Paiute story until now, and I think that’s true for a lot of people. If you look at social media, it’s really captured Native people’s imaginations. This is significant because in states like Oregon and California, many people don’t realize how complete the genocide really was.
My tribe is not indigenous to Oregon – I’m Navajo and Yankton Dakota Sioux. We have our own long walks and tragedies. I come from a very large tribe – the Navajo Nation has 340,000 members. We were force-marched across the state of New Mexico. But we returned to our homeland and have increased in population since then.
You look at the Burns Paiute, they have not recovered their population. The history gets lost. There’s a lot of mythology to America that clouds this discussion … For a lot of land in the United States, the title is not legally held under international legal standards. The U.S. government is kind of shuffling things around to make their claims to the land legal, and really they’re holding it by force.
What do you make of the Bundy militia’s demand that the federal government return the land to the people of Harney County?
It shows a lot of ignorance that most Americans have about the shaky nature, legally speaking, of the authority that the U.S. government has over the land it purports to own. It goes back to the Doctrine of Discovery, which was formulated by the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court … when a discovering Christian nation sets foot on land in the Americas, the title to that land immediately reverts to that discovering nation, and for the Native people, the indigenous people, their title disappears.
The indigenous people in the Americas are the only people in the world who do not possess fee simple title to their land. The Supreme Court has cited the Discovery doctrine as recently as 2005 as still being the law of the land, in a case between the city of Sherrill, New York and the Oneida Nation.
The legality of this is shaky, because of this countercurrent, which is the treaty process. When the United States ratifies treaties, it acknowledges the sovereignty of that nation. When they ratify treaties with tribes, they’re saying that these tribes are not just random gatherings of people or ethnic groups – they are sovereign states.
For Native people, could anything positive come out of the Bundy militia’s occupation?
I think so. There’s a White House petition going around, asking that the title of the land be reverted back to the tribe. I got an email last night from the chairperson of the Burns Paiute tribe saying that they’re meeting with the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell.
What has happened to the tribe over time? How large is it today?
The Paiutes were force-marched from the Malheur Indian Reservation in 1879, after the Bannock War. It was 137 years ago this month. The wildlife refuge at the time was part of the reservation. It was the middle of winter, in the snow, and some of them were shackled two-by-two. They were marched all the way to the Yakama Indian Reservation, which is in Washington State, about 350 miles away. One group that was marched off separately was disappeared by the army. The tribe does not know what became of them.
The hundred or so that came back eventually, they were landless outlaws in Burns. They were finally given land decades later at the former city dump … Today there are 420 members.
The Paiutes are the sovereigns of the land. In their case, the U.S. government did not ratify the treaty with them, and so they never actually gave up any of the ceded land. The sovereignty of tribes is suppressed by the United States. It didn’t disappear. It still exists.
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