The Wadatika (literally waada-eaters) band of Paiute Indians that lived in southern and central Oregon were the ancestors of the Burns Paiute, whose reservation is in Harney County, north of Burns. The area is part of the arid Great Basin region shared by several states. Their language was the northernmost member of the Uto-Aztecan family.
Following the seasons, the Wadatika hunted, fished and gathered edible plants, harvesting their diet from lakes, marshes, streams and uplands. Root gathering and fishing took place in the spring. The roots and fish were dried and placed in storage in anticipation of winter. The Wadatika roamed throughout their lands in the summer, tracking game and collecting seeds. Those activities continued into the fall when they harvested the lakeshore waada plant for its nutritious black seeds. Autumn also was a time for hunting waterfowl. With the advent of winter, out came the stored supplies of dried food. To augment their diet, the Wadatika constructed bulrush mat dwellings near ice-free wetlands in order to harvest water birds, plants and other wildlife.
The first white people the Wadatika encountered were beaver trappers, beginning in the the 1820s. In the '30s and '40s, such European diseases as cholera and smallpox to which the Indians had no immunity were introduced by white contact. The withering effect left grossly reduced Indian populations. By the late '40s, numerous whites were streaming through the region, bound west on the Oregon Trail, and conflict with indigenous people frequently flared up.
The 1860s ushered in a flood of aggressive, land-hungry settlers in the area, backed by U.S. soldiers, and conflict increased. The situation eventually induced the Paiutes to negotiate with the federal government for a reserved area free of white encroachment, where they could keep to their old ways unmolested. Accordingly, on September 12, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed off on the 1.8 million-acre Malheur Reservation, whose size was quickly diminished because of pressure by settlers then prospecters who had discovered gold.
There has been more than one "Trail of Tears" in Native American history. Numerous Paiutes were fatally caught in the middle of an 1878 war between the government and the Bannock tribe, even though the majority of Paiutes did not get involved in the fighting. By war's end, the remaining Paiutes were forced onto their trail of tears when they were moved off the reservation and relocated to Fort Simcoe in Washington. In the 1880s, the empty Malheur Reservation was thrown open to cattlemen and homesteaders.
The federal government's policy toward Indians slowly began to evolve. In accordance with the Dawes Act of 1887, the Paiute were invited to return to their former reservation, or onto reservations in other western states. Those who returned to their former reservation were given 160-acre parcels of marginal land that was resistant to cultivation. Just 115 parcels were handed out, so many Paiutes received no land at all.
Father Heuel, a Catholic priest, arrived in the area in 1927, the first Christian personage to live with the band. He sought to improve their lives, which had reached new lows.
In 1928, the Egan Land Company donated the old Burns city dump, amounting to 10 acres, to the Burns Paiute. The Indians restored the land for houses. Twenty houses, a community center and school were constructed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). A Catholic church also was built in 1932.
In 1935, a 771-acre parcel was purchased by the tribe through a loan by the federal government. In addition, Father Heuel urged the band to seek recompense for the original Malheur Reservation they were deprived of so many years ago. For the following three and a half decades, the Burns Paiute pressed their case. They were ultimately compensated at the 1890 value of the land, which meant a payment of less than $800 per person.
In 1968, the Burns Paiute were finally legally recognized by the BIA, and in 1972, the 771 acres acquired back in 1934, as well as the 10 original acres, were combined to become the Burns Paiute Reservation. Title to the land was received from Congress.