The standoff between law enforcement and Ammon Bundy and his supporters, who began an armed occupation of the visitor’s center of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural southeastern Oregon on January 2, has precipitated a range of interpretations from pundits, journalists, academics and social media users. Many have sought to highlight racialized disparities in state responses to displays of firearms – a particularly poignant critique in light of both the December 28, 2015, announcement of a Cuyahoga County, Ohio, grand jury not to indict the police officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, and the recent 30th anniversary of the firebombing of the Black radical organization MOVE by Philadelphia police in 1985.
Others have debated whether the Malheur action does or does not constitute an act of terrorism. Hashtags such as #yallqaeda, #vanillaisis and #yokellharam have flooded Twitter and other social media platforms. But if such hashtags have been a potent, humorous means by which to highlight the racialization of “terrorism” in contemporary US political discourse, they also reify that “terrorism” as somehow always “Muslim” even when carried out by an overwhelmingly white group of ranchers from Nevada and other Western states. The “y’all,” the “vanilla” and the “yokel” modify the “default” frameworks for understanding what terrorism is in the contemporary moment – al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram – but they don’t displace or even really critique it. And those humorous references to the whiteness of the Bundys and their followers also carry with them an often unacknowledged classism. These gleeful caricatures of bumbling redneck militants, moreover, gloss over the political economy of the ranching industry that has inspired the actions of the Bundys and their allies. In doing so, they miss what’s really at stake.
Ranching is a globalized industry that has had dramatic effects on the climate and physical landscape of North America. It is enabled by and entwined with the state to at least as great a degree as the state acts as a hindrance upon it. Cattle ranching’s early 20th century boom occurred precisely because of (rather than in spite of) the federal government’s control of so much of the West, which allowed ranchers access to wide expanses of grazing lands. Cliven Bundy, Ammon Bundy’s father, owns nearly $1 million worth of cattle, which he has grazed (illegally) on public lands in Clark County, Nevada, since 1993. In Oregon, as elsewhere, the expansion of ranching as a business required both cheap access to federal land and the parceling of land formerly allotted to reservations under the Dawes Act of 1886.
Understanding Malheur requires some historical perspective. Ammon Bundy has argued that the federal government has stolen “land and resources” from “the people” and says he wants to “restore” federal lands to the ownership of those same “people,” a term which, for Bundy, appears synonymous with extractive industries like timber and mining as well as cattle ranching. But the “people” from whom federal lands were taken and those who occupy the Malheur visitor’s center and now want those lands dissolved are rather disparate constituencies.
The Bundys and other ranchers have benefitted from enclosures for well over a century, but now they want to further enclose what is already enclosed.
Southeastern Oregon was Northern Paiute Indigenous territory. In the 1870s, “Malheur” – French for “misfortune” or “tragedy” – was the name of a reservation created for the Northern Paiute people by the federal government. That reservation was dissolved, and hundreds of people were removed to Washington, following the Bannock War of 1878. Still, many Northern Paiutes remained in Harney County, Oregon. As Indian Country Today notes, both the Burns Paiute Tribal Office and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge today sit where the Malheur Reservation once did, on land where Northern Paiutes have lived for centuries.
In his 1999 book Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, historian Mark David Spence argues that the historical concurrence between “Indian removal” and the creation of the first national parks (and wildlife refuges) between the 1870s and the end of the 1910s was no coincidence. Making the West a wilderness required removing, restricting and confining the Indigenous people who had populated the landscape that European-Americans viewed as a “scenic playground, national symbol, and sacred remnant of God’s original handiwork.” Americans, Spence writes, “are able to cherish their national parks today largely because native peoples either abandoned them involuntarily or were forcefully restricted to reservations.”
Spence adds that “uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it could be preserved,” and thus preserving the “wilderness” and excluding or removing Indigenous people went hand in hand. The creation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, among the oldest such refuges in the western United States, was animated by similar logics of preserving nature for Euro-American appreciation and consumption.
The preservation of nature thus functioned as an enclosure of the commons, a process that lies at the heart of the historical and ongoing process that Karl Marx termed “so-called primitive accumulation.” In 17th century and 18th century Europe, enclosures expropriated the peasants from the land and violently transformed them into wage laborers possessing nothing but their labor power, which they were forced to sell in order to survive. The “extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population” of the Americas, was, alongside slavery, one the “chief momenta” of this process.
In the western United States, enclosure meant fencing what had been held in common, transforming it into (public) property, and thus dispossessing and immiserating Indigenous people and producing nature as a collective patrimony of white settlers. The Bundys and other ranchers have benefitted from these enclosures for well over a century, but now they want to further enclose what is already enclosed, to privatize what the Northern Paiutes had to be dispossessed of before the land could be made public. Nature preservation has often itself been a form of enclosure – see Bram Büscher’s contribution here for a contemporary example – but I disagree with writer and filmmaker Charles Mudede’s claim that the occupation at Malheur is against “capitalism itself.” Bundy and his followers do not want to end the enclosures, but instead to carve out their own enclosures within the shell of the state’s. To be an aggrieved rancher is not the same thing as an “emancipated” serf.
At a January 6 press conference, leaders of the Burns Paiute Tribe demanded that the occupiers leave. Tribal chair Charlotte Rodrique accused the Bundy militia of “desecrating” a sacred site. Tribal council member Jarvis Kennedy recounted the violent history of the Northern Paiutes’ dispossession, arguing, “We weren’t removed; we were killed,” and demanded that the armed men “get the hell out.”
Rodrique and Kennedy’s accounts challenge simplistic explanations of the occupation as a populist uprising against government overreach, insisting instead that it be viewed through the lens of the United States’ long history of racist violence and expropriation.
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