Steve Paul

Steve Paul: Heed the Paiute in this conflict over Oregon land

Burns Paiute tribe chair Charlotte Rodrique addressed reporters Wednesday during a news conference in response to the armed occupation of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Ore.
Burns Paiute tribe chair Charlotte Rodrique addressed reporters Wednesday during a news conference in response to the armed occupation of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Ore. The Associated Press

The wide open spaces of the West breed a cornucopia of desires. And the American history of the wide open West comprises a long string of conflicts as many of those desires collided.

Where some people see meditative beauty in the West, others see a livelihood. Where some embrace isolation and self-reliance, others find community and deeply driven communion with birds and the wild.

It was not difficult to understand, on my first road trip out West in the 1970s, how people who live miles from one another and make a life on the range might feel about governments and other forces that appear to encroach on their independence.

Still, Americans are expected to play by the rules, even when they don’t like them. This is the admirable message conveyed by Sheriff Dave Ward of Harney County, Ore., who is in the delicate position of trying to evict an armed band of rogue, anti-government protesters from a federal property without causing a shootout.

Though it comes in an era of heightened anxieties among the anti-government right, Ammon Bundy’s stand in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns, Ore., is contemptible and his grievance is pathetic. Even the ranchers he was pretending to defend willingly took their deserved punishment and went back to serve out prison sentences for poaching on federal land.

It’s all in the family. Bundy, of course, is the son of Cliven Bundy, the snarling racist who survived an armed stand against the feds in Nevada and still owes American taxpayers a million dollars in unpaid grazing fees.

Oil, wind, grouse, grass, ATVs, uranium mines, electric transmission lines — queue up another chapter in the Sagebrush Rebellion; fire up another intractable debate; step up to another one of those impenetrable fences that divide Americans over environmentalism, property rights, land use and wilderness preservation.

Many Westerners can’t stand the edicts of the Endangered Species Act or the workings of the Environmental Protect Agency. Yet many Westerners — and many Americans in general — applaud such efforts to ensure clean air and clean water and to protect natural ecosystems from degradation and industrialization.

I am all for harmony and for ranchers, hunters, hikers, geologists, resource extractors and biologists finding ways to balance competing interests without taking up weapons.

Like many in Harney County, I want Ammon Bundy and his posse to head home, to “slink away as uneventfully as possible,” as one writer of the West, Brooke Williams, put it.

“Hopefully,” Williams writes, “the punishment they receive will be not only what they deserve, but enough to discourage them — or anyone else — from committing similar crimes against the American people.”

Among Bundy’s false assumptions is forgetting the real provenance of the refuge in the first place.

Let us remember that it was home to the Paiute Indians. Their spiritual ties to that patch of the West go back thousands of years. Their patience, their wounded history and their gracious connection to the wilderness area, as reported last week, offer needed perspective. “We have had a good working relationship with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” said Charlotte Rodrique, chairwoman of the Burns Paiute Tribe.

I’d go along with her suggestion that if the Oregon land should be returned to anyone, it should be to her people.

As a gateway to the west — trail outfitter, cattle emporium, trading post hub — Kansas City has a historic connection with the lure of open land and the wild. And we also share in the legacy of the expansive and often dark force of Manifest Destiny, which overtook the West in the 19th century. Still, we cherish mountain, desert and the grassy plains. We also can grieve for the disruptions Americans delivered to native populations and the destruction we wrought.

And surely we can lament and push back against the misguided ravings of a new generation of militant occupiers.

Steve Paul:, @sbpaul