Occupation, Resistance, and History in Malheur

Sarah Winnemucca, first Indian woman to write a book highlighting the plight of the Indian peopleSarah Winnemucca (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As the Bundy militia occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has developed into a national news story, many commenters have noted that the American government and law enforcement seems to respond to such actions with a double standard. When American Indian Movement activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in February 1973, for example, the federal authorities responded with full and often lethal force: the US Marshals, FBI agents, and others who surrounded and blockaded the occupiers throughout the 71 day siege traded fire with them frequently, and at least two of the activists were killed and many more wounded before the activists surrendered.

Even if we leave aside the drastically different levels and tones of the official response to the Bundy and Wounded Knee occupations, there’s another, even more significant layer of contrast between them. It’s a contrast made clear by an ironic twist to the Bundy story: the Malheur site was the ancestral homeland of the Paiute tribe before the forcible removal of that sovereign community to a reservation 350 miles away. And in their responses to that genuinely illegal, brutal, and tyrannical removal, the Paiutes modeled a more peaceful, communal, and far more inspiring form of resistance. The voice and life of activist Sarah Winnemucca, particularly, charted a very different course than the Bundy occupiers are taking today.

The tribe’s story, as it played out after contact with arriving Anglo settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, is an all too common one in American history. After a series of initial treaties and agreements between the tribe and the arriving communities, the settlers decided that the Paiutes were not making sufficient use of this valuable Oregon land. Settlers used a combination of force and law to remove the tribe to the newly created Malheur Reservation nearby. When a group of Paiutes and their allies resisted these removal policies in 1878, the army decimated the protesters in a series of massacres known as the Bannock War and forced the entire tribe into a wintry, 350 mile march to the Yakama Reservation in Washington. Thirty years later, in August 1908, President Teddy Roosevelt established the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (known initially as the Lake Malheur Reservation) on the site.

The contrast between the brutal federal response to the Paiute protesters, who sought only to remain on the land they had inhabited for thousands of years, and the patient and diplomatic federal response to the Bundy militia, which is illegally occupying the same land, raises obvious questions about the relationship between the government and race. But presenting just as telling a historical contrast is the distinction between the Bundy form of activism and that of the most prominent Paiute activist, Sarah Winnemucca.

The daughter and granddaughter of Paiute chiefs, Winnemucca worked for years as a translator and mediator, seeking to preserve peace between her tribe and the US government. When that failed, during and after the Bannock War and the tribe’s removals, she only amplified that work, traveling to Washington, DC to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife, going on an extensive speaking tour to garner support for the tribe, and working with Boston reformer Mary Mann to write and publish her autobiographical and historical book Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883). The last sentence of that book exemplifies Winnemucca’s tireless activism: “After my marriage to Mr. Hopkins I visited my people once more at Pyramid Lake Reservation [a reservation in northwest Nevada where some Paiutes had been subsequently moved], and they urged me again to come to the East and talk for them, and so I have come.”

In the face of oppressive and destructive policies and actions, Winnemucca used her voice and writing to highlight and protest those wrongs, and to advocate for changes that could lead to a more shared national future. Both the U.S. government and Anglo settlers behaved far less than admirably on many occasions, and Winnemucca and her peers could easily have despaired or turned to more violent resistance. But she consistently resisted that urge. Instead, she chose to remember and carry forward the strength of her grandfather Captain Truckee, who had argued until the end of his life for the shared destinies of the Paiutes and his “white brothers.” She carried forward the lessons of her own experiences as a translator and mediator across cultural boundaries. And she stood firm on the democratic possibilities embodied in the congressional petition to return the Paiutes to their homeland with which she ended her book, a petition which had been presented to Congress by a Massachusetts representative she had convinced on her speaking tour.

Throughout her life, Winnemucca remained unflinching in these activist efforts, and they contributed significantly to historical shifts that have continued to this day: many Paiutes were able to return to Oregon in the decades following the Yakama removal, and today those living at the Burns reservation near Malheur are guaranteed access to the refuge for cultural activities such as hunting and seed-gathering and have also worked with the Bureau of Land Management to preserve archaeological sites there.

The Bundy occupation has stopped and threatened all those communal efforts at Malheur, however—one more historical irony. The Bundy militia’s use of armed, illegal occupation, propagandistic rhetoric, and constant threats of violence are smashing the peace and cooperation that Indians like Winnemucca forged with a government that was, truly, oppressing them. The Bundy occupiers should take a lesson from Malheur’s Native American histories and occupiers, its activists and resisters.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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