The Northern Paiutes were made up of small peaceful bands who roamed extensively in central eastern Oregon. The Wadatika were root gatherers and hunters. They lived on a coarse diet of seeds, bulbs, plant fibers, berries, roots, and wild animals.
The first Europeans with whom the Wadatika had contact were trappers who explored the area looking for beaver in the 1820’s, 30’s and 40’s. Epidemics of smallpox, cholera, and other diseases brought into the area by Europeans had swept through the tribe in the 1830’s and 1840’s. The diseases killed many Indians, especially the young and the elderly tribal members.
By the 1840’s the northern Paiute bands had acquired horses and guns, and these became an important way for the Wadatika people to defend themselves and survive. In response, the U.S. Army set up its first military outpost, Camp Alvord, in 1864. By 1867 Fort Harney was established. While the tribes to the north (the Cayuse, Umatilla, Wallawalla, Wasco, John Day, Deschutes and Tygh) were confined to the Umatilla and Warm Springs reservations by 1856, the northern Paiutes continued their seasonal migrations for another decade.
In 1928, the local Egan Land Company gave the Burns Paiute 10 acres of land just outside the city of Burns. The land was the old city dump which the Indians cleaned and drilled a well to make ready for the houses. Twenty two-room homes, a small school and a community center were built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A small church was built by the local Catholic Church in 1932. The school, church and community center were moved to the new reservation after it was established. They had leaders but they didn’t have a formalized governmental structure or permanent chiefs. The Reservation covers 930 acres of trust land, and 320 acres of fee-patent land. Another 11,000 plus acres of allotted lands is held in trust for individual Indians. The Burns Paiute Reservation was formally recognized on October 13, 1973. In 1988, a newly revised Constitution and By-Laws was adopted by the general membership, and approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Burns Paiute Tribe descended from the Wadatika band, named after the wada seeds they collected near the shores of Malheur Lake to use as food. Paiute stories and legends that are handed down from generation to generation tell of the Paiute people living in the Great Basin for thousands and thousands of years. In 1935, 760 acres of homestead and submarginal land was purchased with a loan provided by the National Industrial Recovery Act. The tribe repaid the loan with money earned from leasing the small arable farmland of the new property. This land is held in trust by the U.S. government for the Burns Paiute Tribe.
A school opened on the reservation in 1934. However, some families continued to send their children to boarding schools far from home on reservations such as Fort Bidwell Indian School, Fort Bidwell, California. Health care for the Indians did improve and in 1949 Burns’ public schools were finally opened to the Indian children. Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1936, tribal elections were held for the first time. This early government consisted of a five-member governing body, elected by position. It was not until 1968, however, that the Constitution and Bylaws for the tribe were written and approved. This formalized and made operational the current tribal government. The tribe was then able to receive government contracts and grants which are the basis of the tribal administration today. Finally, on October 13, 1972 the Burns Paiute were recognized as an independent Indian Tribe. The 760 acres bought in 1934 plus the 10 original acres of land were established as the Burns Paiute Reservation. The jurisdiction for this reservation was placed in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Warm Springs, 191 miles northwest of Burns. Individual tribal members still own over 11,000 acres of allotment lands scattered over four townships east of the reservation. Local ranchers lease these allotments for grazing cattle.
A yearly celebration and gathering of tribal members and neighboring tribes is the recently started annual Burns Paiute Reservation Day Pow Wow, which occurs in October. This was declared a tribal holiday in honor of the day the land held in trust for the tribe became a reservation.
The Burns Paiute Reservation is located north of Burns, Oregon in Harney County. The current tribal members are primarily the descendants of the “Wadatika” band of Paiute Indians that roamed in central and southern Oregon. The Wadatika’s territory included approximately 52,500 square miles between the Cascade Mountain Range in central Oregon and the Payette Valley north of Boise, Idaho, and from southern parts of the Blue Mountains near the headwaters of the Powder River north of John Day, to the desert south of Steens Mountain.
The Burns Paiutes traditionally spoke the Northern Paiute language, which is part of the Western Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Their language was the northernmost member of the Uto-Aztecan family.
For economic development, the Burns Paiute created the Old Camp Casino outside Burns. The facility is 17,000 square feet in area and opened in 1998. It includes a casino, the Sa-Wa-Be Restaurant, a bingo hall, an arcade, a gift shop, conference facilities, an RV park, and other amenities.
According to the Oregon Blue Book, the tribe employs 54 people. Tribal employees are organized into nine departments, each dealing with a particular area, such as health, education, the environment and energy, cultural preservation and enhancement, and law enforcement.
Principal industries: forestry, manufacturing, and livestock. Unemployment rate for 1996 was 12.3%.
City: Burns, population 2,890. County: Harney, population 7,050. 10,228 square miles. Per capita income (1994) $17,456. County’s true cash value averages out at about $35 an acre. Rainfall 10.2 inches. Average temperature 27.5 – 69.4 degrees.
There are approximately 341 members of the tribe, less than 35.5% of which reside permanently on the reservation.
The Constitution and Bylaws of the Burns Paiute Colony, adopted May 16, 1968, delineates the objectives, membership, powers of the General Council, and bill of rights of the Burns Paiute Tribe. The Constitution and Bylaws were revised in 1988 changing the five-member Business Council to the seven-member Tribal Council of today. This was necessary to avoid conflict between the two governing bodies, the Tribal Council and the General Council. Now the Tribal Council is directly responsible to the General Council.
The Constitution and Bylaws of the Tribe also outline the format of the governing body, elections, and duties of officers. The governing body, or General Council, consists of all qualified voters. To be qualified to vote one must be a tribal member 18 years of age or older who lives on the reservation, or be an absentee voter. The General Council meets twice a year to discuss and vote on important matters.