Northern Paiutes of the Malheur

We recently had the pleasure of having David Wilson at the Josephy Center to talk about his new book. Wilson is not a historian, not a writer of books–until this one. He was, in a long law career, a writer of law briefs. He told us that he had set out to write a book in retirement. After scribbling about 100 pages on the John Day River, he thought what he had written was all pretty boring. So he threw it away, and reading about the Malheur, the Paiutes, and Chief Egan, his lawyerly self told him that history had it all wrong! And he set out to set it right.Read Rich’s Post →

Standing Rock and Malheur

Like many, I am distressed about recent events in North Dakota and Malheur. I agree with Bill McKibben that the pipeline’s original route, above Bismarck, N.D. was changed to a route away from the white power structure and to one that might endanger tribal people and others downstream who just maybe would not pay attention–or at least do not have the power that Bismarck, the oil companies, and the labor unions have.

I agree with those who wonder what the FBI was doing with the Malheur prosecution. Why the conspiracy charges, difficult to prove, when the plain view infractions–trespassing, destruction of federal property and destruction and desecration of Indian sites–were many?

I agree with those who say that white privilege prevails, and that the Indians are being used and abused once again.

I reread what I had written about Malheur and “ownership” of the land in January. Ownership of and responsibility for the land, the water, and all that lives on and is dependent on it–is at the heart of Pipeline and Refuge. Everything I wrote then is true now for both.

I think that we might embrace the Bundys’ calls for return of Federal Lands–TO THE INDIANS, TO WHOM IT WAS ALLOTTED BY THE GOVERNMENT, AND FROM WHOM IT WAS TAKEN.

Thinking like a Paiute

I first heard about “Paiute forestry” twelve or fifteen years ago, when we spent a Winter Fishtrap weekend at Wallowa Lake talking about fire. Paiute foresters were Westerners who had picked up on the Indian practice of regular, low level burning of forestlands to keep shrubs and dense regeneration under control.

Indians had learned over millennia that regular fire ensured abundant grasses and root crops as well as easy travel. After the Plateau tribes got horses, about 1730, the grasses were especially welcome. But by 1920 the Forest Service, dominated by European and Eastern, Yale-trained foresters, thought the practice “wasteful,” and derisively dubbed its advocates who worked for the Forest Service “Paiute foresters.”

The Forest Service emerged as a separate entity in 1905. The new agency would manage “forest reserves,” land that had already been withdrawn from the public domain in 1891, eventually to be supplemented by other lands—mostly Eastern forest remnants—purchased from the private sector for erosion control and stream protection.

The first Chief of the newly named Forest Service was Gifford Pinchot, whose wealthy family had endowed Yale University’s Forestry Department with great attention to European forestry practices. Pinchot advocated scientific forestry and strong public private partnerships in managing forests for the long-term health of all forests. My reading is that he envisioned a kind of Jeffersonian usage by yeomen foresters of public forestlands. Small and local loggers and mills would manage public timber for their own and the public’s long-term benefit. Pinchot was Chief from 1905-10.

But in August of 1910, a huge firestorm blazed across three million acres of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The “big burn” and WW I would impact Forest Service and fire policy for decades.  The burn’s role is obvious; the War and all its horrors led many to see in firefighting a “moral equivalency” to war, a way for young testosterone to be made useful as boys became men.

There was another change in the Forest Service stance as well.  After Pinchot—and his White House advocate for sustained natural resources, Teddy Roosevelt, moved on, economic utilitarianism became its guiding principle. In 1920, the third Chief, William B. Greely (also a Yalie) wrote in “’Paiute forestry’ or the fallacy of light burning” that

“If surface burning is not stopped, the end is total destruction just as complete and disastrous as       when a forest is consumed in a crown blaze that kills everything at once… If the only solution lies in the uninterrupted destruction of young growth by light burning, we had better harvest our mature stumpage without more ado and then become a wood-importing nation.”

I.e., The Big Burn had been an economic disaster, and even light burning was wasting a natural resource which sustained the forest industry. That view held the fore for over half a century; in 1978 the Forest Service finally abandoned “fire exclusion” in favor of mixed management techniques, including the Paiute practice of light burning.

Today, with the Malheur siege ended, as we think about the Burns-Paiute calm call for the long term health of their millennial homeland, and look over their shoulders at the Malheur Refuge and the vast Harney County landscape, what else might we see?

The birds, fish, and wild four-leggeds throughout the region who need and often share land comfortably with domestic agriculture and ranching; in Harney County, the ranchers, BLM employees and Tribal representatives who are searching for long-term solutions to use and management of resources;

In Klamath Country, another group of ranchers, utility managers, and tribal members working towards compromises on fish, farming, and economies;

And we see the water in Flint, Michigan, where children are reeling with lead poisoning as bureaucrats chase blame for a cheap budget fix that resulted in contaminated water—water being the resource that sustains almost all natural resources;

And the water quality in the state of Iowa, where lead and agricultural contaminants make much of the water in the entire state unsafe, and lobbyists find more value in corn and ethanol than in community health;

And prisons and camps for refugees run for profit—directly and in the building and staffing of government facilities—rather than as parts of systems that make safety, rehabilitation, and immigration fairness state and national goals for the entire body-politic;

And the school buildings in Detroit that are crumbling as teachers, students, and parents struggle to educate a next generation of Americans;

And other school buildings, roads, and bridges that are not roads to riches for the entrepreneurial class.

Maybe it’s time to listen to the Paiutes—and to Indian voices across the land that still speak for fish, water, air, space, and a notion of property as something other than profit center;

Maybe Malheur and Paiute forestry will become symbols for listening to the land and each other, Indian and non-Indian, city and country, young and old, farm and factory, rich and poor. We are all in this together.

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The land owns the Paiutes

Yesterday, amid the blur of news stories from Burns and John Day about the confrontation between occupiers and law enforcement in this latest chapter of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation, there was an NPR story from Nevada. A reporter and a Paiute tribal member were traveling the BLM ground once leased to Cliven Bundy but now, and for several years, not leased but still grazed by Bundy’s cattle. (Cliven’s sons were leaders in the Malheur occupation and among those arrested.)

The story from Nevada was one of fear and garbage—rangeland and fences left untended, BLM employees absent, and, in other places in Nevada, traveling in pairs with safety concerns. The thing that struck me hardest was when the radio team visited an ancient pictograph shattered by bullets from someone who did not care that they were ancient and sacred to Indians. In Oregon, Ammon Bundy was expressing similar distain for the past, saying that the grazing value on the Malheur Refuges is more important than Burns Paiute archeological and tribal values.

Where do you go from here? I turned to Alvin Josephy, and to The Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, almost a half century ago. In the first chapter Alvin talks about the cultural misunderstandings that began in 1492, when “differing concepts concerning individual and group use of land and the private ownership of land were at the heart of numerous struggles…”

This relationship to the land is absolutely essential to understanding the cross-cultural divide that started with Columbus and continues at Malheur. For over fifty years, Alvin wrote and preached that Indians from across the Americas thought—and think—of themselves as part of the land, partners with four-leggeds and two-leggeds, birds in the air and fish in the water. Didn’t salmon strike the deal with the Nez Perce that he would provide sustenance? And the first salmon gets put back each year to tell the others that the deal is on, there are still humans to feed and the humans will do their part to make sure there are always salmon.

This view is radically different from viewing the rest of nature as separate from us and put here for our pleasure—the view expressed in the Book of Genesis, where man is to hold “dominion” over the birds and fishes.  The corollary to that is that nature is somehow inexhaustible—or that there is always another place or another product of nature that will be discovered or come along and save the day. So the beaver are trapped out of Europe, but there is America. The canneries take fish from the Columbia in the millions, but there is another river. When oil is gone there is shale, and when dams are done there is wind.

The European view was that land was another commodity that could be bought and sold, used for one purpose and then for another, by one person and then another, grazed today, tilled tomorrow, home to houses and towns the next.

I taught a class on NW tribes in La Grande this fall. I asked students how far they could go back in place and lineage. How many of them lived in the same place, on the same farm, as had a parent, a grandparent, great-grandparent? And how many of them knew or could name grandparents and great-grandparents? The multi-generational farm, ranch, or business is rare, and knowing and naming three generations back rarer. What they knew was that one generation bought and sold what was passed to them, accumulated or lost property, moved from one place to another, another town, county, or state.

In contrast, I remember watching an old Nez Perce woman from Nespelem weep on her first trip into the Wallowas. It—this place where I live—carries the bones of her ancestors and the stories that her aunties told her about these mountains, rivers, and valleys in the time before removal, the time before the Nez Perce War of 1877. It was, for her, yesterday.

When the West was so big that the white fathers in the East could not fathom it being filled, Indians were “removed” and pushed west as the country moved west. As whites moved west, Indians were crowded onto reservations in the West, and then reservations were redrawn on smaller maps.

The Nez Perce Reservation agreed to in the 1855 Treaty was reduced by 80 percent or more in an 1863 Treaty. The Burns-Paiute, out of the way of a proposed railroad route envisioned by Governor Isaac Stevens, were “skipped” in early treaty rounds, but eventually the Euro-American West caught up with them too. In 1868, after bitter fighting, the Paiute and “all bands of Indians ‘wandering’ in eastern Oregon,” were assigned “a reservation of 1,778,560 acres, which included Castle Rock, Strawberry Butte, the Silvies River, Malheur Lake and the North and South Forks of the Malheur River within its boundaries.” (see )

By 1876, under pressure from settlers, President Grant “opened” much of the country to “settlement.” That 1868 Treaty, agreed to by the Indians, was never “ratified” by the Senate, a process I’m sure they did not much understand.

But here is the miracle. The Indians are still here; the Burns-Paiute are still in Malheur country. They’ve worked for whites, maintained hunting and gathering, worked with the BLM and with the Malheur Refuge to maintain a millennial relationship to that particular piece of land. So it is a land that owns them even though they might not own it.

Alvin Josephy was convinced that this relationship to the land is the reason that Indians are still here; that wars, diseases, boarding schools, the Dawes Act and other attempts at assimilation have encountered an attachment so deep and so strong that land and Indians—not all land and not all Indians, but enough, are still together. And, maybe, as growing numbers realize that this special relationship is a hope not only for Indians, but for all who look to a future that includes land and the four-leggeds, birds and air, water and fish, and even the two-leggeds.

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