The Burns Paiute Tribe said it fears artifacts kept at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge could be sold to collectors and help finance the armed militant’s cause.
In a letter sent Monday, tribal chairwoman Charlotte Rodrique asked federal law enforcement officials to prevent the militants occupying the refuge from moving freely on and off the federal preserve.
“Allowing the militants free passage from the Refuge means that our cultural patrimony is unprotected and easily transported outside the Refuge for sale or misappropriation by the militants,” Rodrique wrote to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey.
The refuge houses more than 4,000 tribal artifacts as well as maps, site records and “confidential documents related to the Tribe’s cultural resources,” Rodrique wrote.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the refuge, said it has a strong working relationship with the tribe when it comes to deciding how to best care for artifacts.
Outside the collection stored at the refuge headquarters, the landscape itself has a wealth of history and cultural significance for the Burns Paiute Tribe. Locked in the earth is information about how people lived there 3,500 years ago.
Over the years, people have discovered former village sites, as well as pits filled with grains and seeds. They’ve also uncovered hearths and disposal pits filled with fish bones. Perhaps most sacred of all, the refuge is home to human remains.
Last week, armed occupiers released a video showing some of the militants going through what appears to one of the refuge buildings’ basements used to store some of the tribal artifacts.
Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum, appears in the video going through boxes of artifacts stacked on tall, grey metal shelves.
“We’re concerned about the way artifacts have been stored here, the Piaute’s artifacts,” Finicum said, pointing to what he said was a rat’s nest in one of the boxes. “We want to make sure that these things are taken care of and returned to their rightful owners.”
In the video, Finicum appealed for someone with the tribe to reach out and act as a liaison with the armed occupiers.
In a statement released Monday, Burns Paiute tribal officials said they are aware of the video.
The tribe said it met last week with Oregon U.S. Attorney Bill Williams, Oregon State Police, staffers with Gov. Kate Brown’s office and a representative from the FBI to express concern over the militants’ handling of their cultural items.
“We are more concerned than ever that some of these artifacts will go missing when this is all over,” Rodrique said in a statement.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also said they were upset by the militants’ actions toward tribal artifacts.
“These items were protected under lock and key before the illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” said Miel Corbett, a spokeswoman with the USFWS. “If (the militants) are truly seeking to protect the cultural heritage of the Burns Paiute Tribe and the American public, we recommend that they would do well to leave the refuge and let us get back to the stewardship we’ve been entrusted to carry out.”
This is not the first time the Burns Paiute Tribe has exchanged words with the armed occupiers.
Earlier this month, Rodrique said publicly she was offended by the suggestion that the militants were trying to return the land to Harney County, which the militants claim is the rightful owner.
In her letter to federal law enforcement, Rodrique also said she was concerned about the safety of her fellow tribal members. She said people coming to Harney County to support the armed occupation have harassed some tribal members. She also indicated that some locals have been inspired by the militants cause.
Rodrique called on federal law enforcement to prosecute the militants for any theft or damage to the tribe’s burial grounds and “cultural patrimony.”
She offered law enforcement the tribe’s cooperation “to ensure that lawbreakers are punished to the full extent of the law.”