Who are the thugs? Who are the heroes?


Paper presented to International Environmental Communication Association
2017 Conference on Communication and Environment, University of Leicester, UK
2 July 2017

Framing Thugs and Heroes in an Armed Stand-off on Indigenous Lands

Cynthia-Lou Coleman, PhD
Sara Galadari
Ben McLean
Charles Randolph

And special thanks to Steve Knight

The armed takeover of a rural wildlife refuge in Oregon in January 2016 gained news momentum, climaxing 4 weeks into the standoff when one of the protestors was shot and killed. Several protesters were arrested and a few stalwarts remained at the refuge for several days before surrendering to authorities on 11 February.

The takeover of the federally protected site, located on Paiute territory, showcased ideological worldviews of several groups, including:

  • Paiute Indians

  • Militia, “Patriots”

  • Federal agencies

  • Local citizens

  • Local law authorities

We examined stakeholder visions, missions and worldviews through their own published documents, and asked:

How were stakeholder claims framed in media coverage?

Looking at Native press, local news, regional news and national US news, we found several noteworthy differences in how stakeholder ideologies were characterized. For example, protesters were critized for toting guns on their forays into the town of Burns, and one local judge called them “armed thugs” (The Oregonian, 11 January 2017). Others, however, refer to the protestors as “heroes” (see, for example, NPR, 5 January 2016 and Eugene Register-Guard, 4 February 2016).

Thugs or heroes?

We present premilinary findings today based on cursory examination of the frames linked to the stakeholders, with the quantitative assessment to follow soon. Our timeframe for the study ran about 2 weeks prior to the takeover and 2 weeks following (15 December 2015 through 15 February 2016). We chose the Indian Country Media Network as an indigenous press source and The Burns Times-Herald for a local news exemplar. We also selected The Oregonian and Oregon Public Radio for regional coverage, and also examined major papers in Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Washington. For national news, we reviewed the New York Times and the Washington Post.


Seizure of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon (2 January 2017), was driven by a group of about 150 armed men who called themselves militia-men and patriots, and called for the US government to turn over federally protected lands to residents. Occupation of the wildife refuge occurred over the first weekend in January, when about 300 protestors arrived in Burns, Oregon, to protest the pending incarceration of two cattlemen who were convicted of arson on federal grazing land in Oregon.

Leading the protest was Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy–a Nevada rancher who gained notoriety for refusing to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees to the US government. The story of the Bundys is woven into the protest at Malheur Wildife Refuge, which is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In fact, some 52 percent of  Oregon’s 63 million acres are overseen by the federal government, including grazing land, forests and fisheries.

The refuge is located about 30 miles from the nearest town–Burns–on territory that is traditional land to the indigenous people of Oregon: the Paiute tribe. As the figure below shows, some 1.5 million acres once belonged to the tribe. Today, the Paiutes have 760 acres for their reservation: five-hundredths of a percent of the lands they once enjoyed.

An equivalent example would be if the government took $100 dollars from you and gave you back five cents.



If you overlay the map of Indian lands with a current map of Oregon (below), you will see that the areas managed by the US government are largely indigenous: green represents the US Forest Service, yellow is the Bureau of Land Management, and orange is the US Fish & Wildlife Services.


Much of the public lands managed by the US Department of the Interior are located in the western United States: about 500 million acres. That’s a little larger than the country of Mexico, and a little smaller than Saudi Arabia.


The Department of the Interior not only protects and manages public land; it also leases the land for a variety of enterprises, including mining, fishing, forestry and grazing. As the chart below shows, more than half of the forests and grounds are leased. However, fees for such practices fall short of covering the costs of maintaining the natural resources. For example, cattle grazing fees have changed little since 1986, rising slightly in Oregon (for example) from $1.35 to $1.65 per animal per month.

Grazing fees cover less than 13% of the cost of managing the program, so, in effect, the government subsidizes cattle-ranchers.



Burns Times-Herald (n=11)

  • Clear support of local residents (insiders)
  • Disparagement of protestors (outsiders)
  • Paiute concerns voiced
  • Acknowledgment of the legitimate role of local law enforcement, BLM, USFW

You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed occupation. The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It’s time for you to leave our community. Go home to your families, and end this peacefully
— Dave Ward, Harvey County Sheriff, 4 January 2016

Militants are ramrodding their way through things and possibly being destructive
Armed protesters don’t belong here.  By their actions, they are endangering one of our sacred sites.
This is still our land, no matter who is living on it

–Charlotte Rodrique, Paiute Tribal Chair, 6 January 2016

Indian Country Media Network (n=12)

  • Packed with historical (Native) narrative
  • Outward support for Paiute concerns

But, scratch the surface of any land issues in the United States, especially in the West, and you are confronted with persisting and strong land claims held by Native nations
–Jacqueline Keeler, writer, 7 January 2016

We are the Wadatika people. The plants we are named after grow on the banks of the Harney and Malheur lake. If they put cattle in there [Bundy has called for the land to be returned to private ranchers] they will destroy these plants
–Charlotte  Rodrique, 19 January 2016

Las Vegas Review Journal (n=9)

  • Straight-forward coverage: protest focused
  • Wire service-heavy, mostly after 26 January

The Malheur takeover, which started Jan. 2, was a flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres in the West. Protesters say they are defending the Constitution

In an interview on Monday with the Oregonian newspaper, Finicum said federal authorities had increased manpower around the refuge and stepped up their…surveillance. There also was a change of attitude, he said. “We used to could walk up to them and talk with the FBI agents in a friendly manner…but the tenor has changed,” Finicum said. “They have become more hardened. When they step out of their vehicles now they’re stepping out with their rifles and they’re not willing to engage in just friendly dialogue.”

–27 January 2016

Idaho Statesman (n=5)

  • Straight-forward coverage: protest focused
  • Wire service-heavy, mostly after 26 January

Turns out there’s been a true patriot in Harney County, Oregon, all along. His name is Dave Ward. When the armed militants arrived and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, they called themselves patriots and twisted a reading of the U.S. Constitution to suit their purposes. Among other things, they argued public lands never really belonged to all Americans and that the federal government had no legal standing to manage them. But they should have had that conversation more fully with Ward [who] told the self-proclaimed patriots their demands were entirely outside the law

–2 February 2916

The New York Times &
Oregon Public Radio

  • Rich and in-depth coverage
  • Gave voice to a range of positions, particularly the protestors
  • Balance of voices
  • Paiute views included as add-on

The New York Times (n=36)

Earlier in the day, the Burns Paiute Indian tribe added its voice to the debate, saying that the protesters, in demanding that the federal property at the refuge be returned to ranchers who once owned it, were ignorant of history. If anyone should get the property back, they said, it should be them. Their ancestors were roaming the still wild and empty reaches of what is now called the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge perhaps as long as 15,000 years ago
–The New York Times, 7 January 2016

The implications of a group now suddenly without its leaders…has created an unsettled feeling that it could all get worse.

”You have a snake out there with its head cut off, and you don’t know what it’s doing, and it’s still wriggling and unpredictable — they have no leadership to caution them,” said Charlotte Rodrique, the chairwoman of the Burns Paiute Indian tribe

“There are roads and fortifications being built right now, and it’s totally a visible violation of federal and state laws protecting our cultural resources,” she said.
”We don’t know what it could lead to,” she added. ”They look like they’re digging in.”

–The New York Times, 28 January 2016

Oregon Public Radio (n=78)

The story offers “a look at some of the key players and the issues central to understanding the ongoing situation in Burns”
Listed are:
* Occupiers (Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, LaVoy Finicum and Ryan Payne)
* Other Players (Dwight and Steven Hammond)
* Harney County Sheriff David Ward
* The Community
* Pacific Patriots Network

[Note: The Paiute Tribe is missing from the list]
–OPB, 24 January 2016

Rather than uniting the hamlet of Burns around a common cause, the rebellion at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by anti-government protesters has exposed divisions among residents, some who support federal regulation of public land and others who bristle at Washington’s sway

[Burns] has played host to a protest movement it never requested: a band of armed cowboys from other states who took over the government-run wildlife sanctuary about 30 miles away, saying they wanted to liberate it from the government’s yoke
–OPB, 30 January 2016

Preliminary Conclusions

  • The New York Times and Oregon Public Radio had the most coverage in the two-month time-frame, wih many nuanced and feature-length stories. As a result, the channels gave voice to the “armed militia” and the ctizens of Harney County, while interviews with Native American folks were rare. Similarly, federal officials–US Fish and Wildlife, Bureau and Land Management, and the FBI–were seldom quoted
  • Regional press from surrounding states, such as Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Washington took little interest in the conflict, although the Bundy family is centered in Nevada. Most of the coverage was based on wire-service stories and occurred after the January 26 shooting
  • The Indian Country Media Network published several lengthy articles about the history of the Paiutes and quoted Paiute spokespeople at length. Generally speaking the Network eschewed balanced coverage, preferring a representation of the Paiute perspective
  • The local Burns newspaper focused primarily on concerns of local residents and avoided presenting the perspective of the protesters

In February, two billboards appeared on Highway 20: the road that cuts east and west through Burns.

One billboard reads: “We are Harney County. We have our own voice.”

“The other, which features a photograph of law enforcement officers, says, ‘Our heroes making Harney County proud,’ ” according to the 11 February Times-Herald.



Thanks for listening: we welcome comments and suggestions






About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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