The situation on the Malheur Reservation is very reminiscent of what happened to the tribes in the 19th century, when thousands of acres of Indian reservation lands were taken from the reservations and allotted to Americans seeking their piece of land, with the promises of opportunity. This notion maybe connected with that of Manifest Destiny, the idea that America has the god-given right to take all of the West and expand its empire to the Pacific. Its a very American model of taking land, because Americans are deserving of every opportunity, regardless of who they have to push out of the way to get it. It is an amalgam of American Exceptionalism as applied to the American spirit, that many people are taught that they have the right of life, liberty and happiness, and if anyone gets in the way, run over them to get what you deserve. And that they are not doing anything illegal, they are excepted from following the laws as it is the right of true Americans to act in this manner.
Lets take of look at what happened to most if not all of the tribes in Eastern Oregon in the 19th century.
Eastern Oregon is a huge land, where many tribes and bands lived for thousands of years. Many tribes, Paiutes, Umatillas, Nez Perce, Kalmath, Modoc, all had a scattering of conflicts, battles and wars with settlers, ranchers and the federal and state troops. In the 19th century there were reservations set up to removed the tribes from conflict with the settlers. Treaties had been written and signed, some had been ratified. The tribes got some payment for their original homelands, and then services promised on the reservations.
In the arrangement with the tribes of Eastern Oregon, they were to be paid for their lands in annual installments over a period of about 20 years. Some of the tribes got funding for schools. But all the tribes were to get health care, help for creating farms, and annual supplies of food and clothing. Many years in the first 50 years (~1856-1900) the supplies were late and funding may or may not be timely, depending on whether Congress appropriated the funds. Letters from Indian agents were always seeking permission to feed the tribes with the remaining livestock of the agencies, and seeking funding for blankets and supplies. Life was very harsh on the reservations and it is understandable that the tribes did not trust the government thereafter. Support for the tribes continued to be extended well into the 20th century with the ultimate goal of someday assimilating the tribes to be Americans. In the 20th century the tribes began suing the federal government for all manner of mismanagement of Tribal money, for non-payment for lands, and for general mismanagement.
Historians and Tribes today question the fairness of the 19th century agreements. The tribes were paid a very small amount for millions of acres of land. Then, the federal government fairly to deliver promised supplies in a timely manner. Health care and resources were hard to find, the tribes became impoverished because of their treatment on the reservations. They were not allowed to manage their own finances. Most did not get the resources to start businesses. In the first few decades of the reservations, many people died from malnutrition and neglect. The stress of removal and reservation life was too much for many. Populations on the reservations declined. These situations are coupled with the extreme prejudice of their American neighbors. White Americans simply wanted to exterminate all of the tribes, and did not even consider the tribes as people. Death came easy to tribal people in this time. Finally the government enacted policies of education and assimilation that were designed to eliminate the tribes through a process of attrition. With fewer people identifying as tribal, they would eventually demand less tribal rights and less resources. An 1887 act to eliminate the tribe was in the Trojan Horse of the Dawes Act. The act was designed to given individual allotments to reservation people, but also instill individualism into the people, eliminate the tribal people who did not have 1/2 Indian blood quantum, and sell off the surplus acreage to Americans. The act appealed to tribal members because they could get a large piece of land and eventually own it. However the tribes were so impoverished that once they received their fee simple title, in 20 years, many were forced to sell the land to pay their living expenses. The Dawes act cause a loss of tribal population (blood quantum), a loss of land (sales, blood quantum) and a loss of Indian identity (individualism). All of these strategies worked to horrible degrade the tribes and the reservations. Some land sales were under trickery by the neighboring whites, and many more acres were sold after the allotted passed on. Millions of acres that had been allotted passed from tribal hands. Some of the reservation kept their lands intact by keeping forest lands under the sole management of the tribal government. The Klamath reservation kept nearly a million acres intact for the valuable ponderosa pine forests.
Many of the reservations in the 19th century were harsh places to live. Life on the Klamath Reservation involved the amalgam of three tribes, Klamaths, Modocs and a band of Paiutes. The Modocs and Klamaths did not get along very well (at that time) and when the Modocs arrived on the reservation they were treated very poorly. They decided to leave under the command of Captain Jack, and the Oregon Militia, under General Canby worked hard to extricate the Modocs from the lava lands, that were like a fortress. Canby was eventually killed and the Modocs were tricked out of their fortress, the leaders caught and hung.
The Nez Perce also had a very negative experience under federal management. They received the Nez Perce Reservation and a treaty and settled in their homelands in the Wallowas. Yet settlers and Ranchers began encroaching onto the reservation and the federal government failed to defend the reservation from them. The lands in the Wallowas are absolutely beautiful and much prized by the newly arrived settlers. Encroachments caused much conflict in the community and after an attack on the settlements the Nez Perce had to flee to save themselves. They began working their way east and north to escape from the cavalry. This event is now legend, many books being written about the Nez Perce situation and their near-escape from the army.
The Malheur Reservation suffered a similar fate as these others. The reservation created by executive order, hosted many Paiute peoples. But local ranchers and farmers coveted their lands, and began settling in the reservation. This and ill treatment of the tribes by the federal government caused the Paiutes to decide to leave and they were chased down. The eventual “war” caused the government to close the reservation and separate the various Paiute tribes, removing them to Warm Springs, and Yakima, as well as jailing others. A small number remained living in their traditional territory and were hosted and supported by local farmers and ranchers in some reports. Other reports suggest the Paiutes became the area laborers and survived off these meager wages.
The Umatilla reservation was allotted out under the Dawes act and the remaining acreage was sold to white Americans. The reservation became a checkerboard reservation. The impetus for allotment under the Dawes Act came from a sector of the government that wanted to open up more lands to Americans to settle and for American companies to exploit for natural resources. Even though the tribes had lost and sold millions of acres in exchange for small reservations, that was still not enough. The tribes were envisioned as wasting even those reservations, and so more lands needed to be taken from them.
The Tribes in this area of Oregon, like those across the United States, lost most of not all their lands. A few tribes were able to keep their lands together, like Warm Springs. The main conflict was in the way in which the notions of Manifest destiny, or the idealized notion that Americans were destined to own the West, was translated into a notion that all Americans deserved to have free land in the West. As settlement progressed, there was less and less land available to allot and settle on for Americans. By the 1870, Americans began clamoring for the federal government to open more lands for settlement. This meant all federally managed lands would become subject to allotment. This included Indian Reservations, which were all managed by the Department of the Interior. So numerous reservations in Oregon suffered reductions or termination, Nez Perce, Malheur, and the Coast Reservation in Western Oregon. In 1865 and 1875 respectively, there were reductions of thousands of acres of the Coast reservation. The termination of Malheur may then have been more a matter of the need to open land for White American settlement, than a need to manage the Paiutes. This is also clearly the case with the Nez Perce reservation. This was a new phase in the colonization of Indian country. Tribes possessed the last remaining non-allotted lands and American worked to eliminate the tribe’s grasp over those lands further.
It is then likely the case that the conflicts in eastern Oregon, in the latter part of the 19th century were really engineered by settlers to make the tribe appear warlike. Once determined warlike this would prompt the Federal authorities to take these lands and make these lands open to settlement. Whether this land grab was engineered this we can not be sure, without more research, but it is clearly the result of continuous encroachment and continuous maltreatment of the tribes and racist acts by the surrounding community, which caused them to react and leave the reservations. This question is not outside the realm of possibility because in the 1850s, settlers in southwestern Oregon, engineered the Rogue River Indian war, to cause the United States to send regular troops to Oregon to defend the white American Settlements and remove the tribes to reservations. This was noted by not less than General John E. Wool, commander of the American Military on the Pacific Coast, after his investigations. Wool suggested that the supposed attacks by Indians on white settlements was in actuality a response to the war of extermination being carried out by the people of towns like Jacksonville and supported by actions by the Territorial government of Oregon.
The final bid for all tribal lands was in the 1950s with the policy of termination and liquidation. Tribes were seen to be wasting these lands still, and those natural resources could be better used to help state and the federal economies and so the elimination of reservations would make all those resources available. For three reservation in Oregon, termination occurred, the Klamath losing their forest lands. Termination was the last bid to completely colonize all of the tribes and reservations in the United States. 109 tribes were terminated nationally until the policy ended with successive presidential statements in the 1970s against termination.
The point of this essay is that conflict, the initiation of conflict is an American way of taking land from other people. Its a way of manipulating the government into opening more land for farmers and ranchers. It has been employed in the past and is now being employed in eastern Oregon at the Malheur refuge. The militants in this conflict are making wild claims about setting up their own governance, which has little chance of being successful. But the real problem is the court of public opinion. While the militants have been engaged in this occupation, they and their issues have been broadly advertised in the American media, and that advertising is now attracting a following. There are politicians and other like-minded people joining the cause. And the media is discussing the issues the militants are raising in a serious manner. Still many feel this occupation has little chance of success.
Yet as the discussion continues, a serious dialogue is now being opened into whether federal lands are poorly managed and the valuable lands are being wasted. That it would be better to allow Farmers and Ranchers the opportunity to put that land into use, because the federal government is wasting it on environmental programs and projects. That leases should not apply. In all appearances this discussion is approaching the same look as that of the 19th century when Indian reservations were closed to make more land available for American farmers, to give them more opportunity. Only now the tribe in that area has little land to take, so its the federal government who is being villainized and victimized. This is a similar situation with the Colonization of the Eastern Oregon of the 19th century and is perhaps a new way to impose colonization in the west, to colonize lands held by the federal government. Its is now the federal government, Big Government, who is in the way of the destiny of these true Americans from having land, and so they simply take it back because it is their right as Americans to have land,, and to open logging operations, and to raise cattle and have opportunity. Who really cares about environmental health anyway?
Again, when did the Paiutes get the right to have their lands? These rights were taken away by the ancestors of many of the farmers and ranchers who the militants are supposedly acting on behalf of today. This movement is not about rights, or fairness, but simply about stealing land and rights by self-serving people who do not deserve the respect or attention the media is feeding them.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.