The leader of an American Indian tribe that regards an Oregon nature preserve as sacred issued a rebuke Wednesday to the armed men who are occupying the property, saying they are not welcome at the bird sanctuary and must leave.
The Burns Paiute tribe was the latest group to speak out against the self-styled militia, which has taken several buildings at the preserve to protest policies governing the use of federal land in the West.
"The protesters have no right to this land. It belongs to the native people who live here," tribal leader Charlotte Rodrique said.
She spoke at a news conference at the tribe's cultural centre, about a half-hour drive from Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is being occupied by some 20 men led by Ammon Bundy, whose father Cliven was at the centre of a standoff in Nevada with federal officials in 2014 over use of public lands.
Ammon Bundy is demanding that the refuge be handed over to locals.
Rodrique said she "had to laugh" at the demand, because she knew Bundy was not talking about giving the land to the tribe.
The 5,500-hectare Burns Paiute Reservation is north of Burns, Ore., in 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 Paiute's 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.
The standoff in rural Oregon is a continuation of a long-running dispute over federal policies covering the use of public lands, including grazing. The federal government controls about half of all land in the West. For example, it owns 53 per cent of Oregon, 85 per cent of Nevada and 66 per cent 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 federal officials.
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 the refuge.
Jarvis Kennedy, a tribal council member, said: "We don't need these guys here. They need to go home and get out of here."
Militia group says government 'has got a whip'
Members of the Burns Paiute tribe aren't the only people in the area who want Bundy's group to end their occupation of the wildlife refuge. Local residents have expressed fear of potential violence and schools in Burns closed for the week on Monday out of concern for student safety.
In an interview on Wednesday, CBC's As It Happens guest host Helen Mann asked Ryan Bundy — Ammon Bundy's brother — why his group didn't have the full support of the local community.
"These people are fearful to come out and support [us] because they're being treated as though they are slaves," Ryan Bundy replied. "The master, who is the federal government, has got a whip hanging over them. If they even lift their head, or raise their eyes a little bit, then they're snapped with another strike."
"People of Harney County are coming here and expressing that to us over and over," he said.
When asked what the group would do if the FBI raided the wildlife refuge, Bundy told As It Happens he didn't believe that was going to happen, but if it did, they "would posture defensively as need be."
He refused to answer questions about whether or not guns would be involved.
Randy Eardley, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman, said the group'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, said 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.