Without seeking permission, a small group of defiant armed men seized control of coveted property in Oregon. They weren’t welcomed by local residents, some of whom petitioned the government to evict the intruders from federally administered land.
Rather than sending in the troops to uproot the uninvited settlers, the U.S. government told the local residents to accommodate them even as they put up fences and started to run cattle on the land they had seized. This destroyed the local agricultural balance, leaving many of the locals near starvation.
Hunger can drive a man to do desperate things, especially when its effects are visible in the faces of his children. Driven beyond forbearance, many of the locals resorted to violence. Although federal authorities were unimpressed by the pleas of starving people, they acted with alacrity to put down what they considered an armed insurrection, driving the locals from the scene and conferring title to the land on those who had occupied it illegally.
This is how the Paiutes were evicted from what is now Harney County, Oregon, the 10,000-square-mile territory that serves as backdrop to the ongoing occupation of vacant federal buildings by a small group calling itselfCitizens for Constitutional Freedom. Led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the armed group seized control of the small cluster of buildings on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns. They resolve to stay there until the federal government relinquishes control over the land to the county.
The CCF’s defiance of federal “authority” – which thus far has not involved violence — has been denounced as “trespassing,” “terrorism,” and “treason.” Yet the original white settlement of the county was done illegally. In that instance, the Feds made common cause with law-breakers (and, if you will, terrorists) to dispossess the uncooperative Paiutes, who had been promised the land as part of a peace agreement.
Harney County was named after General William S. Harney, who rose to prominence during a punitive expedition in the 1850s to “chastise” restive Sioux for organizing armed resistance against white encroachment on lands supposedly guaranteed to them by treaty. In the 1860s, the outpost named after the general was established not far (in relative terms) from present-day Burns.
Fort Harney played a key role in the “Snake War,” a four-year campaign to subdue and assimilate the Paiute and Shoshone Indians in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada. That relatively obscure conflict was, in the words of historian Gregory Michno, “the deadliest Western Indian war in American history.”
One federal objective in the Snake War was to break the resistance of the Paiutes and confine them in a reservation. As originally constituted in 1872, the Malheur Reservation encompassed some 1,778,560 acres of land supposedly set aside for the use of nomadic Indian bands who had lived in the region since time immemorial.
An official named Samuel Parrish was appointed as Indian Agent in 1873, and he endeared himself to the Paiutes by treating them respectfully and dealing with them equitably. His replacement, Harrison Linville, was a more typical bureaucratic specimen, padding his requisitions and charging extortionate prices for rations which the Indians had been promised during peace negotiations.During Linville’s tenure, records a Paiute tribal history, “stockmen and ranchers were pressuring the government to turn over reservation lands for settlement and grazing of cattle. They were not even waiting for a federal mandate but began to run their livestock and even build ranch homes on the reservation.” Contention over the area near Fort Harney was especially acute: The Paiutes gathered camas roots – a staple of their diet — in the fertile valley. The arrival of cattle made this impossible.
Rather than treating those ranchers as terrorists or subversives for unlawfully seizing land held in trust by the federal government, the administration of President U.S. Grant simply ratified the illegal seizures.
In 1876, President Grant “ordered the northern shores of Malheur Lake open for settlement,” thereby cutting off another important harvest area from the Paiutes. Compounding the injury with an insult, Grant appointed William Rinehart, a veteran of the Snake War, as the Indian Agent.
During the war, Rinehart had made himself notorious for advocating the utter extermination of the Paiutes. He also opposed the relative leniency displayed in the peace terms proposed by General George S. Crook.
“Tell your people that the Big Father in Washington has sent me here,” Rinehart told the Paiutes by way of an interpreter. “He told me how I must make you all good people. This land which you are living on is government land. If you do well and are willing to work for the government, government will give you work.”
What Rinehart didn’t explain was that the Paiutes were expected to work, but not to make a living, because he intended to follow General Sherman’s infamous dictum that the only “good” Indians were those no longer found among the living. As Indian Agent in the Malheur Reservation, Rinehart continued his effort to consign the Paiutes to oblivion, choking off their rations and allowing white settlers to invade Paiute lands at will.
In her memoirs, the redoubtable Sarah Winnemucca recorded routine incidents of abuse under Rinehart’s administration, such as arresting a Paiute boy named Johnny and threatening him with summary execution for stealing beef to feed his starving family. On another occasion, one of Rinehart’s agents beat a small, old, emaciated Paiute “almost to death for no good reason,” Sarah recalled.
Paiute Chief Egan confronted Rinehart in a bid to stave off extinction.
“Did the government tell you to come here and drive us off this reservation?” the Paiute Chief demanded to know. “Did the Big Father say, go and kill us all off, so you can have our land? Did he tell you to pull our children’s ears off, and put handcuffs on them, and carry a pistol to shoot us with? We want to know how the government came by this land. Is the government mightier than our Spirit-Father, or is he our Spirit-Father? Oh, what have we done that he is to take all from us that he has given us? His white children have come and taken all our mountains, and all our valleys, and all our rivers; and now, because he has given us this little place without our asking him for it, he sends you here to tell us to go away.”
Within a few years, the Paiutes joined in the regional uprising called the Bannock War. After putting down the Indian insurgency, the victorious Feds rounded up every Paiute they could find for transport to Washington’s Yakima reservation. Those who evaded federal custody melted into the hills throughout the ION (Idaho-Oregon-Nevada) region.
General Crook, the U.S Army’s most accomplished Indian fighter, candidly admitted that the Bannock War was provoked by the government he had served with such distinction.
“It cannot be expected that they will stay on reservations where there is no possible way to get food, and see their wives and children starve and die around them,” Crook wrote of the Paiutes and Shoshones. “We have taken their lands, deprived them of every means of living…Our Indian policy has resolved itself into a question of warpath or starvation; and, merely being human, many of them will choose the former alternative where death shall be at least glorious.”
Then, as now, the government-aligned media was less conciliatory than some military leaders, demanding nothing other than the annihilation of radicals and militants unwilling to submit to “authority.” “It was not the want of food which started them upon the warpath, but their savage thirst for blood, which had not been restrained and prevented by proper discipline and Governmental supervision,” sneered the war-crazed editor of the Idaho Statesman.
There are distant echoes of that attitude among left-leaning commentators who have described the CCF stand-off as a confrontation with domestic terrorists who should be regarded as little better than drone bait. The FBI – architects of slaughter at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the chief choreographer for “homeland security theater” operations involving spurious terrorism plots – is preparing criminal charges against at least five members of the group.
For their part, the CCF is well-entrenched and resolved to remain where they are until the Feds yield control of the land back to the locals.
While their means have prompted widespread criticism, the CCF’s cause is one that resonates with rural westerners, including at least some of the ranchers who live nearby, and have seen many of their neighbors and colleagues driven away by the Feds. Ranchers and others living on federally administered lands haven’t yet been confronted with the grim alternatives described by General Crook – “warpath or starvation” – but the engineered destruction of their livelihood is encouraging a healthy and understandable militancy among many of them.
During my visit to the scene of the stand-off the CCF was in discussion with some of the local ranchers who had provided them with food and other material support.
“When you really think about it,” one member of the group admitted to me outside the Refuge headquarters building, “this land really belongs to the Indians anyway.”
Whatever else one might say about the CCF, the motives animating its occupation are much more commendable than those of the squatters who illegally occupied Harney County in the 1870s. The same Regime that made “settlers” and “county fathers” out of the first occupiers is determined to cage or kill the CCF in the service of the same principle expressed by the execrable Indian Agent William Rinehart: “This is government land.”