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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