Oregon Militia Standoff Spotlights Federal-Tribal Quandary over Artifacts

(Photo: AP/Manuel Valdes)

Burns Paiute Chair Charlotte Rodrique speaks during a press conference on January 6, 2016,  in response to the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon.

While the remaining Oregon militia holdouts negotiate with federal law enforcement officials, the Burns Paiute tribe is anxious to find out whether the militants damaged any of the thousands of tribal artifacts housed on public lands since the standoff began in October. Tensions reached a boiling point in late January when state police killed one member of the group and arrested 11 others.

The conflict over management of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge thrust the tribe into the middle of an impasse between federal officials and anti-government forces. The episode also illuminates the complexities of smaller American Indian tribes’ relationships with federal authorities because they rely more heavily on the government’s assistance.

Those tensions are on full display in the Beaver State. The Burns Paiute leaders and prominent archeologists have compared the Oregon extremists to the Islamic State militants who have destroyed countless ancient sites in Iraq and Syria, plundered valuable archeological collections, and sold artifacts to raise funds for their operations.

They want federal authorities to act fast to investigate whether the militia has removed anything from the buildings after the group displayed an obvious interest in the collections. Shortly before he was killed last month, LaVoy Finicum, the Oregon militia’s de facto spokesman, posted a video that showed the occupiers rummaging through Paiute artifacts in one of the federal buildings. In the video, Finicum complained about the storage conditions at the site.

“We’re concerned about the way artifacts have been stored here … and so we’re reaching out to the Paiute Tribe to say we need to open up some communication,” Finicum said. “We’re looking for a liaison because we want to make sure that these things are returned to the rightful owners.”

Tribal Chairperson Charlotte Rodrique had flatly rejected the group’s overtures, telling the Prospect that she had received racist emails from the group’s members. Rodrique, the leader of Harney County’s only federally recognized American Indian tribe, has insisted that federal officials start to account for the thousands of Paiute artifacts stored at the refuge as soon as the standoff ends.

She fears that Burns Paiute artifacts and burial grounds might still be in danger as the situation grows more desperate for the four militia members who remain at the refuge. “What’s to say that someone won’t sell these artifacts in the black market?” she says.

“It’ll take a year” just to account for all the records and objects, says Jarvis Kennedy, the tribe’s sergeant-at-arms. “We don’t know where our artifacts are. They could be on my neighbor’s shelf; they could be on eBay.”

The American Anthropological Association voiced its support for the tribe and echoed its concerns about the artifacts in a January letter to Dan Ashe, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director. The association noted that “the problems with these artifacts being held hostage are numerous, and our fear is that they may be altered, destroyed, or sold illegally.”

The federal government plays an outsized role in the preservation of the Burns Paiute artifacts, protecting the tribe’s property under the terms of an 1868 treaty. With fewer than 400 members, the tribe must rely almost entirely on the government’s assistance.

“We’re such a small tribe, we can’t afford a building to store this volume of artifacts,” says Rodrique. The collection numbers more than 4,000 pieces, including stone arrowheads, woven baskets, site records, maps, and confidential documents that pinpoint other archaeological sites throughout the wildlife refuge, which humans have inhabited for at least 9,800 years.

Rodrique said that the tribe has maintained a productive relationship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge under a 2013 conservation plan developed in conjunction with the tribe, environmental groups, ranchers, farmers, and local and state government officials.

The plan catalogues the sensitive sites requiring protection, including burial grounds, rock art, hunting blinds, vision quest sites, as well as the remains of winter villages where roaming bands of Paiute tribes sheltered before European settlers arrived. Federal officials also have established guidelines that prohibit access to these sites and set up patrols.

Donald Grayson, a University of Washington archaeology professor says that the Oregon militia standoff takes federal-tribal relations into unchartered waters. “This has never happened before in terms of archaeological artifacts,” he adds, referring to the standoff that has placed the antiquities in danger.

Two important federal laws, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, were passed in 1979 and 2009, respectively, to prevent looting of archaeological sites by ceding control of archaeological artifacts and remains found on federal land to the tribes themselves, while federal authorities retain the power to prosecute anyone who disturbs sites or steals artifacts. 

Rodrique has asked the Justice Department to prosecute the occupiers for “any theft of cultural patrimony, sacred objects or damage to the burial grounds at the Refuge,” and offered assistance to help “ensure that lawbreakers are punished to the full extent of the law.”

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