The militiamen stationed at a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon are now rummaging through artifacts and documents of the Paiute tribe, sparking outrage among local Native Americans whose ancestors originally occupied the land.
LaVoy Finicum, one of the leaders of the armed protesters occupying the Malheur national wildlife refuge, posted a video of himself inside a government building looking through cardboard boxes of papers and other items associated with the local tribe – and inviting Paiute leaders to meet with the militia and reclaim their belongings.
Watch LaVoy Finicum rummage through Paiute artifacts:
“We want to make sure these things are returned to their rightful owner,” said Finicum, who recently helped destroy a US Fish and Wildlife Service fence and remove cameras that he claimed the government was using for surveillance.
The rightwing militia, led by Ammon Bundy, took over the headquarters of the wildlife sanctuary on 2 January to protest the government’s land-use regulations in rural Harney County. They have demanded that local ranchers have control of public lands – not the federal government.
But days after the occupation began, leaders of the federally recognized Paiute Indian tribe in Burns, the town closest to the refuge, decried the armed occupation, pointing out that the out-of-state militiamen were trying to claim sacred lands that are part of the tribe’s ancestral territory.
The new video, posted on Wednesday night, has only further enraged tribal leaders who recently called on law enforcement officials to protect native cultural resources at the refuge and to criminally prosecute the militiamen.
“I feel disrespected that they’re even out there,” said Jarvis Kennedy, the tribal council’s sergeant-at-arms. Kennedy said he was too upset to watch all of Finicum’s video. “It’s like me going through their drawers at their house.”
Tribe leaders and federal officials say the refuge stores confidential documents and thousands of historic artifacts, such as baskets, spears, tools and beads. The refuge is also home to Paiute burial grounds, making the militia’s recent decision to pave a road through the refuge particularly alarming.
“I could go to the Bundys where his grandparents are buried,” Kennedy said. “How would they feel if I drove over their grave and went through their heirlooms?”
In his video, Finicum said that he was showing how the wildlife refuge has done a poor job maintaining the artifacts and keeping storage rooms clean. “This needs to be taken care of, and so we’re reaching out to the Paiute people in the sincerest manner as we can,” he said on camera. “Let’s make sure that we take care of the heritage of the Native American people.”
Added militia member Blaine Cooper: “The rightful owners need to come back and claim their belongings.”
But Kennedy said the tribe has a good relationship with refuge officials and noted that the Paiute people refuse to communicate with militia leaders or visit the occupation.
“I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of meeting with them,” Charlotte Rodrique, chairwoman of the Burns Paiute tribe, told the Guardian last week.
Kennedy noted that the militiamen have had no trouble leaving and returning to the refuge and feared one of them might damage or steal their artifacts and documents. “All the stuff they are doing out there, it’s like a crime scene,” he said. “Once this is done, we’ll see what’s missing.”
© 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
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