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Burns Paiute Tribe Leader Worries Bundy Acquittal 'Empowers' Misbehavior

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A group of self-proclaimed militia members was acquitted this week on charges connected to their armed takeover of the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge. A federal jury decided on Thursday that brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, as well as five others, are not guilty of conspiring to impede federal workers from doing their jobs during their 41-day long standoff in January and February. They were also acquitted of illegal possession of firearms and theft of government property. Jurors were deadlocked on one charge. The brothers had argued they were exercising their right to civil disobedience. The ruling was shocking to many, especially those who fear the decision will set a dangerous precedent for those who want to use federal lands or disagree with current land management practices.

But we wanted to check in with another person involved in this conversation. We spoke with Charlotte Rodrique of the Burns Paiute Tribe earlier this year about the tribe's opposition to the standoff. Charlotte Rodrique was tribal chair at the time, so we thought it would be a good time to check back in with her. And we reached her at her home. Ms. Charlotte, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

CHARLOTTE RODRIQUE: Thank you. I'm pleased to be able to shed some light on how I feel as a tribal person.

MARTIN: How do you feel about all this? You know, I'd love to hear what your reaction was.

RODRIQUE: I'm disappointed with the outcome. I feel like it empowers those that want to misbehave to act outside the law. You know, I do respect the federal courts. I do respect the process. But I was just in shock.

MARTIN: Well, I just want to remind people, for those who may not recall, that the occupation took place in land that the Burns Paiute Tribe considers to be sacred land.

RODRIQUE: The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is located on what would have been the corner of the original Malheur Reservation. And it's always been acknowledged by the people who established the refuge that the land basically was ours. And, you know, one of the things that really disturbs me is that we haven't utilized the refuge since the occupation.

MARTIN: How did you use it before?

RODRIQUE: The land itself was a traditional wintering ground for the various bands of Paiute people in this area, which includes Northern California and northern Nevada and southwestern Idaho. And we take our youth down and talk about our history. And we have groups of youth that go out and they gather the tulles, and they make various egg-gathering baskets and just get a taste of what it was like to be a tribal person 150 years ago.

MARTIN: And you haven't been able to do any of those things?

RODRIQUE: You know, we haven't had a chance to go in all summer because of the intimidation. I think they lost three employees, and they haven't been replaced. And people are reluctant to come into the area. You know, federal employees transferring in are afraid to be at the refuge, I guess.

MARTIN: Right around the same time this was happening, more than 100 protesters were arrested in protests over the Dakotah pipeline Access project this week. And maybe people will remember that a lot of tribal persons really from all over the country have been protesting this project. I assume that other people from the Burns Paiute Tribe have been participating. And I just wonder how you think about that.

RODRIQUE: We had tribal members that went from here to North Dakota to stand in in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. And I got pictures and calls from one of our former tribal council members, and she said that they had the North Dakota National Guards in full riot gear blocking entry to the state capitol. They were on the steps in front of the group, and she said, I don't think anybody's got any weapons. But they act like we're going to attack something.

And we kind of laughed, and I told her - I said, well, what's there? And she said, well, we've got a couple of drums set up. And I said, well, maybe they're afraid you're going to hit them with a drumstick or something. She said, no, they're just so threatening. If somebody makes a wrong move or something, what's to stop them from shooting us all down?

It's funny that when Native Americans speak up or protest, right away, you've got an armed confrontation with the military. And it's really hard to understand the discrepancy and the way the country treats the minorities.

MARTIN: That was Charlotte Rodrique. She is the former chair of the Burns Paiute Tribe. She's still active in tribal affairs. And we reached her at her home in Oregon. Charlotte Rodrique, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

RODRIQUE: You're welcome, and I hope what little words I had have meaning for some of our people out there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.