BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) - When armed men first took over a U.S. government wildlife refuge in Oregon this weekend, the leader of the area’s Native American tribal council could relate to their land-right dispute - but disagreed with their gun-toting approach.
“I just think they’re a bunch of glory hounds,” Charlotte Rodrique, chairwoman of the federally recognized Burns Paiute Tribe, said in an interview at the tribal reservation’s meeting house on Tuesday. “Look at us, look at what we’re doing.’ I don’t give much credence to their cause.”
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the small town of Burns have been thrust into the spotlight by the takeover, which began on Saturday and marked the latest protest over federal management of millions of acres (hectares) of land in the West.
The armed group’s standoff with the U.S. government over ranchers’ land rights has bewildered the tribe’s leaders. Although the Paiute have their own disputes over land and water with U.S. government agencies, they prefer a less adversarial approach.
The reservation is not far from the wildlife refuge, and the tribe has been living in the arid western Oregon mountains since long before Europeans arrived in North America.
“There was never an agreement that we were giving up this land,” Rodrique said. “We were dragged out of here.”
The tribe’s approach has typically been less provocative than the protesters who brought guns to further their anti-government cause.
“I’m, like, hold on a minute, if you want to get technical about it ... the land belongs to the Paiute here,” said Selena Sam, a member of the tribe’s council who works as a waitress at a local diner.
At an emotional news conference in Burns on Wednesday, tribal leaders denounced the occupiers’ claims of wanting to help local residents, and said the protesters’ ignorance of the region’s real history was offensive.
“We don’t got no jobs here. But we don’t need them to back us up,” said the tribal council’s sergeant at arms, Jarvis Kennedy.
“They just need to get the hell out of here, I’m sorry. Because we didn’t ask them here. We don’t want them here ... This community is hard-working,” Kennedy said to loud applause.
The tribe held a council meeting on Tuesday to discuss the sudden national attention land rights are once again getting.
Tribal officials said the government has become increasingly bureaucratic about allowing the tribe to catch trout, bass and perch in the rivers lacing the mountains and to hunt elk and deer in the woods.
But the tribe wants to avoid the gun-toting approach to grievances favored by the group led by Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven Bundy, had a similar standoff with federal agents over grazing rights in Nevada in 2012.
In 2014, the federal government owned 47 percent of all land in 11 states that comprise the American West, according to Congressional Research Service data, or more than 353 million acres. That compared with just 4 percent in the rest of the country, not including Alaska.
“This western concentration has contributed to a higher degree of controversy over land ownership and use in that part of the country,” the research service said in a report.
Tribal leaders said their way of dealing with land disputes is long, slow lobbying by talking and writing to government officials at all levels: county, state and federal. Only when all else fails do they resort to lawsuits or symbolic protests.
Ammon Bundy and his supporters arrived in Oregon after local ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, were given longer prison terms for setting fires that spread to federal land, saying the government wanted to seize ranch lands for its own use.
It was not clear how many protesters were involved in the occupation. Federal law enforcement officials have kept their distance, following guidelines instituted to prevent a repeat of standoffs that ended in bloodshed such as those in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and later in Waco, Texas, in the early 1990s.
“I feel like it’s happening all over again but to a different set of people,” tribal council member Sam said of the anger felt by the ranchers and their supporters. “They’re like ‘Let’s grab some guns.’ We have a different approach.”
Rodrique, the tribal chairwoman, told the news conference that the wildlife refuge was important to the tribe as a source of willows for handicrafts, as well as medicinal plants. And she said tribe members were concerned about potential damage to archeological artifacts.
“There is a lot of activity down there as far as the tribe is concerned, and we’d like to keep it that way,” she said.
“And we don’t want people who have no interest in this country at all in here, ramrodding their way through things and possibly being destructive.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Denver; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou, Lisa Shumaker and Jonathan Oatis