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In which John discusses the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Southwestern Oregon by armed civilians, and what the history of this land can tell us about private and public property in the United States, and how land came to be owned in America.
CORRECTION: Oregon's capital is Salem. I am a grapefruit.
To learn more about the history of the Burns Paiute tribe:

Their tribe's web site:

Helpful maps to understand how the Northern Paiute land changed in the 19th century with land grants to pioneers:

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Good Morning, Hank. It's Tuesday.

So, until a few days ago the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Southwestern (Southeastern) Oregon was mostly known for it's high quality spring-time bird watching, but then some people with guns decided to take over the refuge's headquarters which is both a big deal- like armed civilians are in control of a federal building, and not that big of a deal- like it's not like the building in question is the U.S Capitol. Regardless, it gives us a reason to consider some complicated history and how ideas about public and private property have shaped the United States. So these days Oregon is often seen as one of the most progressive states in the US. I mean, I judge a city by primarily by the quality of it's soccer support and it's public transportation by which measures Portland, Oregon's capital might be Americas greatest city (Salem is Oregon's capital). But as is often true with American history, the deeper you dig the more troubling it gets.

Okay, so around a thousand years ago, the Northern Paiute tribes Kucadikadi band moved into what is now the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The first Europeans didn't show up until the 1820s and their arrival, of course, was catastrophic. Like most American-Indian groups the Kucadikadi were devastated by smallpox and other European diseases. As many as 90% of them died from disease within 30 years of the first European contact.

So by the 1840s, thousands of white settlers had made their way West to Oregon via the Oregon Trail, this 202,000 mile long wagon route that today is primarily famous as a video game in which you almost always die of dysentery. These settlers encroached on Northern Paiute land and there were some conflicts, but things didn't really pick up until 1850 when the U.S passed the Donation Land Claim Act. That law granted 320 acres of and to any white man who settled and cultivated the land for at least 4 years, and married couples could get 640 acres of land. There were a bunch of laws like this; white settlement in Oregon increased dramatically, and by 1859, it became a state.

Quick side note: Oregon's first state constitution contained some of the most shameful language in American history. For example, it outlawed black Americans even visiting Oregon. It was technically illegal for African Americans to move to Oregon until 1926.

But right, so by 1859 there were all these new white settlers in Oregon thanks to the federal government's land grants. And not to state the obvious or anything, but inherent to the idea that the US federal government could give land to these white settlers was the idea that the land in question was the US Government's to give. The idea of federally owned territory is established in the Constitution, and even today a LOT of the United States is owned by the federal government.

Speaking of which, in 1872, the Northern Paiute tribe signed a treaty with the United States Government establishing a 1.8 million acre reservation called, get this, the Malheur Reservation. The US government abided by this treaty for all of zero minutes with settlers immediately encroaching on the reservation. And then, after an 1878 war won by the US Army, the remaining Northern Paiute were taken off their land and forcibly moved to Washington state. About 100 Northern Paiute families were allowed to return to Southwestern (Southeastern) Oregon at the end of the 19th century, but today their reservation is less than 1% of its original size and their tribe has just 349 living members.

So in summary, for 800ish years, what is now the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was Northern Paiute land. First, because they were the only people living there, and then because they negotiated control over the land in a treaty with the US Government. The US Government then won a war, deported the remaining Native Americans, and took control of the land, which it held until 1908 when President Teddy Roosevelt declared it to be a refuge for birds. That Teddy Roosevelt, he loved birds, especially hunting them.

So that was the history of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge until a few days ago when it became the de facto headquarters of a militia claiming that the US government has no right to own federal land. Hank, there are many compelling arguments to be had about government infringing upon the rights of citizens, but this is not one of them. So this militia argues that there's something tyrannical about a representative government telling the people is supposedly represents to do or not do things on certain land. Like, if the government is of the people and by the people, then how can the government prevent me, a person, for doing whatever I want on federal land? The answer, of course, is that the land doesn't just belong to you, it belongs to all of us and collectively we've decided what to do with it. This is in accordance with the US Constitution which states pretty explicitly that the US Congress shall have the power to, and I quote, "dispose and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States." And throughout US history the Supreme Court has consistently upheld the idea of federally owned and managed land. The counterargument I've seen most often is that land should belong to the people who use it, not to the government. Which isn't so different from the way the Northern Paiute treated land for most of Oregon's human history. However, the people using the land in question would still be the Northern Paiute if the US Army hadn't intervened on be half of white settlers in the 19th century. In American history there is no escaping that fundamental fact: our government took this land from sea to shining sea, whether through purchase or war or forced deportation or dishonest treaties. And then it apportioned some of that land up as private property. If the federal government has no right to federal lands and never did, then they never had the right to give away millions of acres to white settlers in the 19th century. This would render much of American private property illegitimate, including by the way, probably my house.

Hank, it seems to me that if the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge's Headquarters Building doesn't belong to the federal government that built and paid for it, then that building and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and in fact much of Southwestern (Southeastern) Oregon belongs, not to a militia, but the the 349 surviving members of the tribe that has lived on that land for most of its history.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday