Thursday, January 07, 2016

"This Is Government Land": The Eternal Refrain of the Federal Occupiers

Without seeking permission, a small group of defiant armed men seized control of coveted property in Oregon. They weren’t welcomed by local residents, some of whom petitioned the government to evict the intruders from federally administered land.

Rather than sending in the troops to uproot the uninvited settlers, the U.S. government told the local residents to accommodate them even as they put up fences and started to run cattle on the land they had seized. This destroyed the local agricultural balance, leaving many of the locals near starvation. 

Hunger can drive a man to do desperate things, especially when its effects are visible in the faces of his children. Driven beyond forbearance, many of the locals resorted to violence. Although federal authorities were unimpressed by the pleas of starving people, they acted with alacrity to put down what they considered an armed insurrection, driving the locals from the scene and conferring title to the land on those who had occupied it illegally.

This is how the Paiutes were evicted from what is now Harney County, Oregon, the 10,000-square-mile territory that serves as backdrop to the ongoing occupation of vacant federal buildings by a small group calling itselfCitizens for Constitutional Freedom...

The CCF’s defiance of federal “authority” – which thus far has not involved violence -- has been denounced as “trespassing,” “terrorism,” and “treason.”  Yet the original white settlement of the county was done illegally. In that instance, the Feds made common cause with law-breakers (and, if you will, terrorists) to dispossess the uncooperative Paiutes, who had been promised the land as part of a peace agreement. 

 Harney County was named after General William S. Harney, who rose to prominence during a punitive expedition in the 1850s to “chastise” restive Sioux for organizing armed resistance against white encroachment on lands supposedly guaranteed to them by treaty. In the 1860s, the outpost named after the general was established not far (in relative terms) from present-day Burns.

Fort Harney played a key role in the “Snake War,” a four-year campaign to subdue and assimilate the Paiute and Shoshone Indians in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada. That relatively obscure conflict was, in the words of historian Gregory Michno, “the deadliest Western Indian war in American history.”

One federal objective in the Snake War was to break the resistance of the Paiutes and confine them in a reservation. As originally constituted in 1872, the Malheur Reservation encompassed some 1,778,560 acres of land supposedly set aside for the use of nomadic Indian bands who had lived in the region since time immemorial.

...During (Indian Agent) Linville’s tenure, records a Paiute tribal history, “stockmen and ranchers were pressuring the government to turn over reservation lands for settlement and grazing of cattle. They were not even waiting for a federal mandate but began to run their livestock and even build ranch homes on the reservation.” Contention over the area near Fort Harney was especially acute: The Paiutes gathered camas roots – a staple of their diet -- in the fertile valley. The arrival of cattle made this impossible. 

Rather than treating those ranchers as terrorists or subversives for unlawfully seizing land held in trust by the federal government, the administration of President U.S. Grant simply ratified the illegal seizures. 

In 1876, President Grant “ordered the northern shores of Malheur Lake open for settlement,” thereby cutting off another important harvest area from the Paiutes.  Compounding the injury with an insult, Grant appointed William Rinehart, a veteran of the Snake War, as the Indian Agent.

...While their means have prompted widespread criticism, the CCF’s cause is one that resonates with rural westerners, including at least some of the ranchers who live nearby, and have seen many of their neighbors and colleagues driven away by the Feds. Ranchers and others living on federally administered lands haven’t yet been confronted with the grim alternatives described by General Crook – “warpath or starvation” – but the engineered destruction of their livelihood is encouraging a healthy and understandable militancy among many of them.
...Whatever else one might say about the CCF, the motives animating its occupation are much more commendable than those of the squatters who illegally occupied Harney County in the 1870s. The same Regime that made “settlers” and “county fathers” out of the first occupiers is determined to cage or kill the CCF in the service of the same principle expressed by the execrable Indian Agent William Rinehart: “This is government land.” 

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