Law | Opinion

Steve Russell: Cowboy legal scholars fail big on federal Indian law

Cliven Bundymm a rancher from Nevada, sent a "notice" on February 1, 2016, to Harney County in Oregon to claim a part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for "We the People." Image from Bundy Ranch

Steve Russell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, doesn't think the leaders of the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon will get very far in the court system since they don't seem to understand some basic concepts in Indian law:
Bundy’s legal scholarship told him that if he owed any grazing fees, they would owe the state of Nevada and not the federal government. The armed men who seized Malheur---led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Cliven---called themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.

Their legal theorizing tells them that the federal government can only own land within states under very limited circumstances and a wildlife refuge is not one of those circumstances. The cowboy legal scholars were not too sure what to make of it when informed that the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge used to be known as the Malheur Indian Reservation and it was land held in trust by the federal government for the Northern Paiutes.

The Paiutes sided with the Bannocks in a war against the U.S. and lost. In retaliation, most of them were removed to a reservation in Washington Territory. The Northern Paiutes who did not remove to Washington live on a tiny reservation near Burns, Oregon, and they have assumed responsibility for protection of Paiute sacred sites and historical artifacts, a task that has been carried out to the satisfaction of both the Burns Paiutes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, managers of Malheur.

Legal scholars could have an energetic quibble over whether the trust in favor of the Northern Paiutes was ever lawfully destroyed, but if the cowboy legal scholars want to make it a title dispute between state and federal governments, the Paiute trust does not matter.

Get the Story:
Steve Russell: The Oregon ShootOut and the Cowboy Lawyers (Indian Country Today 2/2)

Also Today:
Both Sides in Wildlife Refuge Protest Face Off in Oregon (The New York Times 2/2)
Emotional Protesters Face Off In Burns (Oregon Public Broadcasting 2/1)
Cliven Bundy Calls For Refuge Occupation To Continue (Oregon Public Broadcasting 2/1)
Ammon Bundy to appeal to another judge to be released pending trial, court records show (The Oregonian 2/1)
Uncertainty builds after last occupiers fall silent online (The Oregonian 1/31)

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