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A Divided Burns Looks To Heal

The leaders of the armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge have been arrested. But Harney County remains a tense, and in some ways, a divided place. Conversations about the occupation have dominated social media and dinner tables. Many locals say they’ve felt stressed and anxious for weeks.

Every Tuesday in Burns, a knitting club gathers at a bookstore downtown.

“Do you do thirty-two stitches on eight?
“I think forty, I do forty. But I think I knit tight..)

Two white haired women, who are both named Helen, knit and chat. They used to spend this time catching up on grandkids or asking after each other’s health, but their conversation quickly turns toward the refuge occupation. Helen Hardwick says she doesn’t know anyone who supports the militants.

HELEN HARDWICK: The people that I know, they just want them to leave, and things get back to normal again.

The other Helen, last name Patton, talks about the community rally she went to the day before. Hundreds of locals gathered in front of the courthouse for a counter protest directed at outside militia groups.

PATTON: “Well it made a lot of us feel better. It gave us a good opportunity to yell. And I think that’s what a lot of us have been wanting to do for a long time.”

For many in Burns, the counter protest was the first time they had confronted outsiders about the recent turmoil in the community.

PATTON: “You should’ve seen Barb Nelson. Oh my gosh. And I said well, she doesn’t have that red hair for nothing.”

That protest was supposed to be silent. But as Harney County residents came face-to-face with the outsiders, their emotions boiled over.

It was like all the anger, fright and fatigue of the occupation the suddenly came out.

LAFOLLETTE: Enough was enough. It was cathartic.

Craig LaFollete is the mayor of Burns.

LAFollete: This quiet, small community has been thrust to the forefront of everyone’s daily conversation. And that’s, I think quite unfortunate. Because there is a complete different side of this community.

For local residents, the occupation didn’t just affect the refuge. It’s taken over daily life in Harney County. It comes up during basketball games, in tense conversations on Facebook, and in the grocery store aisle.

Some in Burns do support the militants. You hear stories about family riffs and even break-ups because of people who took different sides on the occupation.

Charlotte Roderique, chair of the Burns Paiute Tribe, has worried constantly over the ancestral sites and tribal artifacts at the refuge.

RODERIQUE: “It’s been really hard for a lot of us because we really do take our protection of our ancestors very seriously. It is an emotional thing for us and it’s hard to talk about.”

The tribe plans conduct a prayer and cleansing ritual when the occupation finally ends.

RODERIQUE: Praying for a rebirth. And that things aren’t too disturbed—and this means the animals, the wildlife, everything.

Even with the occupation ongoing, some residents are trying to start a healing process now.

Along a snowy stretch of highway, Burns resident Sally Hendry ties a ribbon around a utility pole while her friend Terry Bencen looks on.

HENDRY: Is that high enough?
BENCEN: Should be.
HENDRY I hope they don’t slip down.
BENCEN: Oh, okay, I thought you were going to do something fancy. (laughs)

About a dozen Burns residents are doing the same thing all over town.

HENDRY: We’re putting up community ribbons. They’re orange. It’s hopefully going to be unity day in Burns today.

HENDRY: And I’m hoping, oh I just think this is going to lead to some resolution.

For now, hanging the unity ribbons is the one thing Hendry knows she can do to encourage her community to come back together.

Amanda Peacher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow reporting and producing in Berlin in 2013. Amanda is from Portland, Oregon, where she works as the public insight journalist for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She produces radio and online stories, data visualizations, multimedia projects, and facilitates community engagement opportunities for OPB's newsroom.
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