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The Malheur Wildlife Refuge Occupation: a Skirmish Among Colonizers

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On January 2nd, a group of armed “militia men” broke into and took over the headquarters and visitors’ center of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. As of this writing, no law enforcement action has been taken against them, though the County Sheriff has said that “a collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution” which includes the FBI.

The stated reason for the take-over was to protest the imminent imprisonment of two local ranchers – Dwight Hammond, Jr., and his son, Steven – for committing arson on public lands in 2001 and 2006. The Hammonds did not solicit the attention of the militia men, who all are reportedly from out of state.

Two of the militia men are Ryan and Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the rancher who, in 2014, famously prevented the Bureau of Land Management from removing his cattle that were illegally grazing on public lands. In an interview with the Oregonian, Ryan said: “The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area… will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control.”

Ammon Bundy characterized the building as “the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds” and the refuge as “destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area.”

The Bundys have stated that they are prepared to occupy the building “for years” if necessary, and that they “would not rule out violence if law enforcement tries to remove them.”

This is a provocative action and inflammatory language, especially coming from people with guns.

Some have asked: would the corporate media be treating this story differently if the armed men were black? Would the word, “terrorists” be unhesitatingly applied if they were Muslim? Undoubtedly.

Is there big money behind the media that is responsible for biased coverage of militia actions and their issues of “sovereignty” in general? Undeniably. Did the local paper, the Oregonian, paint the Hammonds’ case in transparently sympathetic terms just one day before the Malheur occupation? Yep, right here.

Are the actions of the militia legally definable as “sedition” under federal law? Charles P. Pierce at Esquire Magazine argues that case (using some rather purple prose to do it).

And is it true, as the Audobon Society of Portland has declared, that “the occupation of Malheur by armed, out of state militia groups puts one of America’s most important wildlife refuges at risk”? Absolutely.

Social media has been abuzz with these and other points, and has roundly mocked the militia men, anointing them with names such as “Y’all Quaeda” and “Vanilla ISIS.” Yet for all the noise that’s been made from many different quarters, most of the voices have had one thing in common: they are all speaking from the point of view of the Colonizers of this continent, and doing so unknowingly. Nearly every one of them takes for granted that this is an issue between the militia and the government, and no more.

Fortunately, we can count on the Indian Country Today Media Network to provide us with a broader perspective:

“Some of the same armed ‘militia’ involved in the Cliven Bundy affair in Nevada have occupied federal land in Oregon formerly reserved for the Northern Paiute. Ironically, the ‘legal’ basis for starting a fight with the federal government is that sovereignty ‘really’ belongs to Oregon rather than the Paiutes, who have seen their federal trust land shrink from over one and a half million acres to a tiny remnant of 760 acres in Burns, Oregon, where this current armed standoff began.”

Adding to this point, Amanda Girard penned an article for U.S. Uncut, “Don’t Call Them Patriots. They’re Terrorists Occupying Sacred Native American Land,” in which she writes: “The Bundy militia occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge should seriously reconsider their use of the word ‘tyranny,’ and how the land they’re claiming as theirs rightfully belongs to the indigenous tribes that armed white men illegally stole.”

Therein lies the rub. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was carved out of stolen land. Who was the land stolen by? Armed white men, often self-organized as independent militias. That is how this continent was colonized, and the colonization never ended. Colonization is the system that sustains the nation to this day, with its cities, agriculture, laws, social mores and art. At a deeper cultural level, then, those on one side – who urge a government crack-down on the militia – and those on the other side – who support the militia – are on the same side: the side of the Colonizers against the Indigenous.

It is not common to use the word, “Colonizers,” to describe the non-Indigenous inhabitants of this continent, but it is accurate to do so. Nor is the adjective, “Colonial,” usually conferred on the institutions of these inhabitants, but it also fits. If we apply these terms to some of the points being made about the Malheur situation, we can see how narrow the discussion really is.

To revisit and rephrase: The Colonial government, at all its levels, treats Colonizers differently based on their skin color and religion (i.e., “Black,” “Muslim”). The Colonial news media is biased in favor of the Colonial ruling class and will enthusiastically make a cause célèbre out of anyone from the Colonial lower class if it will serve this bias (Fox News loves the Bundys). Colonial law defines certain illegal actions with particular labels (“sedition”).

These things are all true, but none of them questions the legitimacy of the Colonial arrangement or acknowledges the history of genocide that was essential to its origins, invasive spread and current sustenance.

Even the Audobon Society of Portland, which at least has sincere concern for non-human creatures, is not immune from the Colonial mindset. In their press release on the topic of Malheur, they note that the refuge “was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt.” Referencing this history lends an air of legitimacy – since, in Colonial terms, 1908 was a long time ago, especially here on the Empire’s western edge – but Roosevelt himself was ardently anti-Indigenous. Said he: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

The ethos of Roosevelt and the early “Conservationists” entailed depopulating land that was set aside as National Parks and other reserves. Many Indigenous people were forced from their ancestral homes as the Colonialists pursued their pseudo-intellectual ideal. From these barely post-Victorian progenitors sprang the notion, still in common currency, that “wilderness” must be kept free of human activity in order to be healthy. Never mind that the lands as the Europeans discovered them were the product of an active and age-long collaboration between Indigenous people and their ecosystems. Of course, to the Colonizers, who believed that the earth had been given “dominion over the earth” such a lifestyle was beyond their imagination, as it still is today.

In “Bundy Militia Musters Again Over Paiute Land,” the Indian Country Today Media Network shares some relevant history about the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge:

“If anything is clear-cut about Indians in the Constitution, it is that relations with Indian nations are a federal responsibility. Carrying out that responsibility in Oregon, President U.S. Grant established the Malheur Indian Reservation for the Northern Paiute in 1872. It is no coincidence that the historical reservation shares a name with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, site of the current armed standoff. White settlement nibbled at the Malheur Indian Reservation until the Bannock War in 1878, which ended with surrendered Paiutes and Bannocks on the reservation being removed, officially to the Yakama Reservation in Washington Territory. Unofficially, Paiutes had scattered all over the Western States that comprised their aboriginal lands. The Burns Paiute Reservation is the remains of the Malheur Reservation and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is an alternative use for the federal land, for those who believe the federal government exists.”

Some people might question the relevancy of this history. Why does it matter? It all happened so long ago. There’s many reasons why it’s relevant, and here are two:

1) The “Indian Wars” never ended. Indigenous people within the Colonial borders of the USA have the poorest health, lowest life expectancy and highest rate of poverty of any other group of people. Their tiny reservations, often hundreds or thousands of miles from their original homes, are under assault from Colonial resource extraction corporations seeking uranium, fossil fuels and water. Treaty obligations are still disrespected and broken. The Indigenous fight for survival is anything but over. To view the Malheur occupation solely in terms of militia vs. government at this one location in Oregon is to perpetuate the Colonial mindset in oneself and hence deny the ongoing Colonial policies against the Indigenous peoples.

2) The Colonial arrangement has made a mess of things, to say the least. Pillaging the earth for its resources has turned out to be a very bad idea, as witnessed by environmental degradation, species extinction and Climate Change. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Indigenous example shows that people can participate in nature’s dynamic equilibrium in a healthy way, rather than throwing it off-balance. Human nature, as illustrated by the old ways, is nurturing; it is Colonial nature that is destructive. As long as Colonialism reigns supreme in thought and in action, the society cannot learn from the examples of Indigenous living that still survive, and will not attempt a collective return.

In the context of the Malheur occupation, the ranchers certainly signify some of the worst that the Colonial system has to offer: destruction of native habitat, private profiteering, short-term thinking, all wrapped up with a Biblical bow on top. For all their talk of attacking the system, these armed men are not a threat to Colonialism in the slightest, nor would they want to be. In the end, they merely represent one flavor of Colonialism, if a particularly rancid one. I will certainly be happy when they are removed from the refuge, which they surely will be, sooner or later. In my estimation, ranchers are among the most despicable people in this whole despicable culture and it will be a great day when there is no more ranching. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be cheering for their Colonialist opposition.

In the Esquire article cited above, Pierce writes: “There is a constituency for armed rebellion in this country that is larger than any of our respectable political and social institutions want to admit. It is fueled by reckless, ambitious people who engage in reckless, ambitious rhetoric.”

“Reckless” and “ambitious” describes to a T the Colonial system that Pierce finds “respectable.” That system in turns produces Colonial citizens who spout “reckless, ambitious rhetoric,” which is mostly what we are hearing from “both sides” of the Malheur debate. No matter who loses that argument, Colonialism wins.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press

CounterPunch Magazine

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