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A jury in Oregon has aquitted Ammon Bundy and his militia followers on federal conspiracy charges stemming from the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. The verdict caps a high-profile nearly two-month-long trial and could have major implications when it comes to federal land management and the Western militia movement. The occupation itself also had an unintended consequence. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, it's refocused attention on the ancestral rights Native Americans hold to lands in the West.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Bundy militia supporters dressed in traditional cowboy attire waving American flags at passing cars. Some even ride a horse up and down the busy city sidewalk.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Lady Liberty.
SIEGLER: A block away, Jarvis Kennedy watches all of this and rolls his eyes.
JARVIS KENNEDY: You don't claim to be victims, but we were.
SIEGLER: Kennedy is a councilman with the Burns Paiute Tribe in Harney County, Ore. That's home of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that the Bundy's occupied in protest of the government's ownership of federal lands. But Kennedy is also out here anxiously awaiting a verdict.
KENNEDY: They didn't know what they were getting into. They didn't do their homework and so forth and didn't even know we're on the football field.
SIEGLER: When the occupiers took over the refuge last winter, the Burns Paiute people watched in dismay. Ancient tribal artifacts stored there were handled and moved. At one point, the militants bulldozed through sacred burial grounds while trying to build a road. Before it became a refuge, this was the traditional winter gathering area for Kennedy's people. That's before they were moved to a 10-acre reservation near a landfill outside the small town of Burns.
KENNEDY: I was raised like this to know that it's always going to be our land no matter who owns it or what. It's always going to be us. We're the first people. And when everything is done and said, we're going to still be there.
SIEGLER: Kennedy's tribe briefly made national headlines when they spoke out during the occupation. And he says tribes from around the country and Canada called with offers to come to Burns and support them. His tribe declined. It was just too tense, and they were worried about violence. But Kennedy says something good came out of all of this.
KENNEDY: As Native peoples and - this Bundy stuff kind of kicked off something, like a unity thing.
SIEGLER: Tribes in Nevada are now pushing for permanent protection of lands they consider sacred around militia leader Cliven Bundy's ranch, the man who inspired the Oregon occupation. A coalition of tribes in Utah is pushing for a national monument. And the most high-profile show of tribal unity since the Oregon occupation, the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
CHASE IRON EYES: My name is Chase Iron Eyes. I'm from the Lakota Nation or the Standing Rock Nation.
SIEGLER: Iron Eyes is running for Congress in North Dakota. He says, with defiance, that the plight of the Burns Paiute in Oregon brought a sort of awakening to Indian country. He's optimistic that acts of civil disobedience and unarmed peaceful protests like his will bring land reforms.
IRON EYES: The duty that tribes are claiming to their sacred sites, to ancestral homelands, places to hunt, fish, provide for themselves, those those things are being ignored by the American government.
SIEGLER: But for every Oregon or North Dakota example, Native activists can point to dozens of other cases of injustices that capture no mainstream attention. Here's Tia Orosi Peters, who heads the California based Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples.
TIA OROS PETERS: It may have had a momentary glimpse of a tiny second that may have triggered a feeling of guilt and-or responsibility, and then it went away.
SIEGLER: So there's still deep pessimism in Indian country. In Portland, Jarvis Kennedy of the Burns Paiute Tribe can't help but see how the land claims of Native Americans are treated differently than they are with the militia movement.
KENNEDY: Well, if I did that with my peoples, my Native brothers and sisters, and we went occupied something, do you think we'd be let running around free, go in and out of it? No, we would be locked down.
SIEGLER: For now, Kennedy is just hoping the verdict in the Oregon occupation will be a small measure of justice. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Portland.
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