The occupation of a group of federal buildings on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has many of us scratching our heads in confusion: who does that land really belong to, anyway? Originally, the land that makes up the park belonged to the Paiute tribe—for thirteen centuries, to be exact. After the Paiute people were forced to leave their homeland, they were marched through the snow 350 miles to the Yakima Reservation in southeastern Washington.
The word malheur means misfortunate and adversity, and that is precisely what took place when the Paiute left: large herds of livestock were allowed to roam free, causing the wild grasses on the land to deteriorate and become depleted. Moreover, birds local to the region such as the white heron were hunted to extinction, prompting the Oregon Audubon Society to ask President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the lands under federal ownership. As a result, he signed an executive order into law that served to establish the nearly-82,00a0-acre Malheur Lake Refuge as “a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.”
The Bundy family, however, see only themselves in the history of the struggle over the land—and they definitely have established a history of confrontations with the Bureau of Land Management and the government that includes previous arrests and incidents involving arson of federal land.
Interestingly, according to Tay Wiles’ account of the standoff history, no Harney County residents are occupying the refuge with Ammon Bundy and company. However, despite the lack of local involvement or support, the group intends “to defend the people of Harney County in using the land and the resources.”
This vague mission statement is characteristic of the surge in rightwing extremist groups that has been growing, as of late—in part in reaction to the election of a black, Democrat president, and in part in response to growing numbers of federal regulations related to wildlife and public lands that began in the 1970s and triggered what became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. The movement was a reaction to environmentalism and environmentalists—who were, they argued, “conspiring to destroy America, starting with rural communities.” The Bundy-fronted militia group is infused with anti-federalist extremism as well as religious ideology connected to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Captain Moroni, from Utah, is named after the historical figure of Captain Moroni, who took command of the Nephites when he turned 25. In order to secure the safety of the Nephites, Moroni innovated weaponry, strategy, and tactics that allowed them to worship and legislate as they pleased. Apparently, the Bundy family’s motivation in their occupation of the federal buildings is their way of paying tribute to Captain Moroni’s “title of liberty.” However, it’s worth noting that the Church released a statement officially condemning the actions of the occupiers.
However, as the Honorary Mark Kennedy, Director of Professor of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, reminds us, “Genuine personal relationships are essential to create any hope of bridging differences and finding common ground.” In other words, it pays to truly understand each other by sitting down and having a conversation, rather than pulling out one’s guns and having an Old West-style showdown. In a recent op-ed, Heather Ann Thompson points out that, unlike the indigenous people who originally lived on the land around Burns, the men holding the wildlife refuge hostage haven’t been stolen from and aren’t due reparations.
Jonathan Allen recently sat down with Charlotte Rodrique, the chairwoman of the federally recognized Paiute Tribe in Burns, who spoke about the tribe’s view of occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Although the tribe also has disagreements with government agencies over land and water usage rights, they go about dealing with it in a much more less adversarial way. Also, there is—as stated earlier—the irony of the original land owners; Allen quoted one of the council members on the subject: “‘I’m like, hold on a minute, if you want to get technical about it…the land belongs to the Paiute here,’ said Selena Sam, a member of the tribe’s council who works as a waitress at a local diner.” Rather than ‘grabbing some guns,’ they take a more legally complicit approach. Interestingly, the social media reaction to all this posturing has been telling, in terms of what it suggests about the tone of the news media coverage of the occupation.
The Twitter hashtags #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS, Art Roderick points out, are being used “to call attention to what they see as deferential treatment afforded to the militia members because they are white.” In other words, if the occupiers were black or Muslim, they would have dubbed ‘terrorists’ and media coverage—as well as social media and law enforcement—might have been more critical of the rebels, rather than calling them “peaceful.” One interesting discrepancy in the reporting concerns the current number of occupants: Ron Gainer, the local owner of an RV park nearby, estimated he counted about fifteen people, whereas previous reports by the Bundy family claimed 150 people had joined their cause at the refuge. Meanwhile, members of the Paiute tribe claim the occupiers are “desecrating one of our sacred sites.”
Michael Wara, an associate professor at Stanford, said, “The protesters either disagree with this Supreme Court decision or want Congress to limit itself to acting as an owner rather than an owner and government with respect to federal land holdings. And the latter is not going to happen.” In terms of the political reaction, Republican presidential candidates are responding to the situation with caution and common sense: “Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has called on the protesters to ‘stand down,’ saying, ‘every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds, but we don’t have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence on others,” while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) echoed with a similar statement, encouraging citizens to vote and contact their elected officials, rather than react lawlessly.
It seems telling that neither the Hammond family, the Church, nor national militia such as the Oath Keepers desire to be affiliated with the occupants of the wildlife refuge building. Moreover the sheriff, the local Paiute tribe, and the townspeople, as a whole, do not desire to align themselves with the militants. Few seem to be willing to associate themselves with the standoff, leaving little other than the abstract support of people living outside the area. The Bundy family, for example, come from Nevada, another is a U.S. Army veteran from Montana, and another occupant hails from Arizona.
Although many townspeople want the occupants to vacate federal property, some feel that certain long-standing issues regarding the regulation of federal land that have needed airing are finally being addressed. It remains to be seen if the occupants will leave of their own accord or be taken into custody; however, here’s to hoping that all parties’ concerns will be addressed and that there is a peaceful conclusion to the situation.