The leader of an American Indian tribe in Oregon said Wednesday that the armed militia occupying a national wildlife refuge building are not welcome and must leave.
The Burns Paiute tribe is the latest group to speak out against the protesters, who have taken over several buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest policies governing the use of federal land in the west. The tribe considers the preserve as sacred.
"The protesters have no right to this land. It belongs to the native people who live here," tribal leader Charlotte Rodrique said.
Rodrique spoke at a news conference at the tribe’s cultural center, which is located about 30 minutes from the preserve, which is being occupied by about 20 men. The group is demanding that the refuge be handed over to locals.
Rodrique told reporters she “had to laugh” at the demand, because she knew Bundy, whose father Cliven was at the center of a standoff in Nevada with federal officials in 2014 over public lands, was not talking about giving the land to the tribe.
The 13,700-acre Burns Paiute Reservation is north of the remote town of Burns in Oregon sagebrush country. The reservation is separate from the wildlife refuge, but tribal members consider it part of their ancestral land.
As with other tribes, the Burns Paiutes' link to the land is marked by a history of conflict with white settlers and the U.S. government. In the late 1800s, they were forced off a sprawling reservation created by an 1872 treaty that was never ratified. Some later returned and purchased property in the Burns area, where about 200 tribal members now live.
Bundy's group seized buildings Saturday at the nature preserve in eastern Oregon's high desert country. Authorities have made no attempt to remove them.
At a community meeting attended by hundreds of people in Burns on Wednesday evening, cheers erupted when Harney County Sheriff David Ward said it was time for the group at the refuge to "pick up and go home."
"We can work through it like adults, peacefully, with a united front," Ward said.
The standoff in eastern Oregon is a continuation of a long-running feud between ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management over federal policies covering the uses of public lands, including grazing. The feds control about half of all land in the West. For example, it owns 53 percent of Oregon, 85 percent of Nevada and 66 percent of Utah, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The Bundy family is among many people in the West who contend local officials could do a better job of managing public lands than the federal government.
"It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, the rancher back to ranching," Ammon Bundy said Tuesday.
Native Americans are among the groups who reject the notion of giving the land back to ranchers and loggers, saying the government is better equipped to manage public lands for all those who want to make use of them.
The Burns Paiute tribe has guaranteed access to the refuge for activities that are important to their culture, including gathering a plant used for making traditional baskets and seeds that are used for making bread. The tribe also hunts and fishes there.
Rodrique said the armed occupiers are "desecrating one of our sacred sites" with their presence at refuge.
The Oregonian reported that in 1868, the Paiute Tribe signed an agreement with federal officials that requires them to protect the natives’ safety. The tribe says the government has promised to prosecute “any crime or injury perpetrated by any white man upon the Indians."
Rodriguez said the tribe never gave up its rights to the land and works with the BLM to preserve historic archaeological sites.
Jarvis Kennedy, a tribal council member, said: "We don't need these guys here. They need to go home and get out of here."
Randy Eardley, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman, said Bundy's call for control of the land to be transferred makes no sense.
"It is frustrating when I hear the demand that we return the land to the people, because it is in the people's hand — the people own it," Eardley said. "Everybody in the United States owns that land. ... We manage it the best we can for its owners, the people, and whether it's for recreating, for grazing, for energy and mineral development."
Bundy's group, calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, says it wants an inquiry into whether the government is forcing ranchers off their land after Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, reported back to prison Monday.
The Hammonds, who have distanced themselves from the group, were convicted of arson three years ago and served no more than a year. A judge later ruled that the terms fell short of minimum sentences requiring them to serve about four more years.
About 200 people live on the Burns Paiute Reservation and according to Rodrique, the tribe owns about 11,000 acres of the land across the nation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.