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Unhinged in Burns: Inside the Malheur Rebellion

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Burns, Oregon.

A man who proclaims himself a member of the Alaska Militia limps up to you in a parking lot with a grey ponytail and an earring in his left ear. “We’re just here for our civil rights,” he assures you (and himself), “They’re coming at us from all sides, but then they’ll find we’re just businessmen.” He’s worked as a king crab fisherman for decades. “There are twenty more of us coming down. This should have happened a long time ago. I knew the Hammonds. I grew up with them.”

In Burns, the militiamen are present in visible numbers, having descended on the small town after the father-and-son Hammond duo was sent back to prison for an arson at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuse that surrounds their 12,000 acre ranch. The militiamen’s demeanor tends to bear similar traits, though not totally distinguishable from the locals in these parts. Many of them grey-bearded bespectacled men who seem out of joint and out of place, they come largely from a white working class background angered by the state of the US to the point of feeling completely lost and at odds with the modern world.

The presence of utter frustration is palpable and contagious. At times, one feels a sense of being at war, although the sides are indeterminable. In their martial struggle, the militias seem only partially conscious of a battlefield that they are imposing on the daily lives of the citizens of Burns, because for them it is their way of life. Yet, they do not seem to heed the concerns of other Patriot movement members like the Oath Keepers, nor does the denunciation of the Mormon Church seem to shake their will. That space of autonomy is crucial to the present moment.

Yet the frustration among locals, many of whom are Mormons, is perhaps greater than that of the militias giving press conferences at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and milling around Burns. We met briefly with an organizer in the area attending meeting after meeting of community members fed up with the chaos.

However, while the community appears to stand against the fiasco, there are important nuances.

“I don’t know what’s going on, I want to stay neutral,” one clerk told us. “You can mind your business all you like, and then somebody wants to come around and put you in theirs. I just run my shop, I’m a mom, and I don’t want anything to do with whatever’s going on.”

According to her, militia members called in a threat to the local schools stating that they would shoot the children of the BLM employees, so the district shut down schools for the day. The terror in her voice was palpable, and she had even considered joining the initial march that sparked the occupation of the wildlife refuge by a breakaway group led by the Bundy brothers.

Significant anger about the schools closing mixes in with the feeling that teenagers are being shown a terrible example, while the children have no place to go. Among three friends in Burns, two had been contacted by the FBI, and joked about being able to exchange numbers by phone or card.

“My company doesn’t have an opinion,” one of the local women declared, “but I have one. You know me.”

“I want to go somewhere were there are no reporters,” she declared, pausing for dramatic irony. “And there isn’t any! I want to go home.”

A History of Anger and Heartache

The last time Burns was “this popular,” one local explained, was the late 1980s when a large forest fire caused consternation among the community, and limited the supply of gasoline to a trickle. It is beautiful country in the low desert, rimmed by ridges and foothills. Sparsely populated Harney County has its origins as an illegal break-away from Grant County involving renegades who stole official records, and brought them to the new county sear in Burns, which today numbers around 2,700 people.

According to Charlotte Roderique, in her fifth year as chair of the Burns Paiute tribe, which comprises about 350 people in somewhere around 750 acres lying northwest of Burns, the local Natives have a history of abuse from both officials and vigilantes in the area. The Paiute lands, she stated at Wednesday morning’s press conference, have never been ceded to the government, and “we never gave up our rights to aboriginal territories from the Cascades to the Blue Mountains[.]”

The mood was tense and the room full at the Burns Paiute Tribal Center building during the conference. A video played on a large screen above the podium depicting traditional practices and lands of the Burns Paiute, and Roderique appeared confident, flanked on both sides by her comrades and supporters.

Although a treaty was signed in 1868 promising that the US federal government would ensure the rights of the Indigenous peoples, it was never ratified by the Senate, she explained. There is a tacit agreement, however, that the Paiute can use the Refuge for their own purposes, excluding hunting. The Wildlife Refuge contains artifacts dating back 15,000 years, and holds a vital position in the lives of the Paiute.

Among other things, the region served as a wintering ground for settlers, ranchers, trappers, and others in the area drawn in by the cold. It could be a place of community and prosperity, yet “by their actions,” Roderique explained, the militias “are desecrating one of our sacred sites, they are endangering our children and families… they do not belong here.”

When she heard that the militias insisted that they were giving the land back to those to whom it rightfully belongs, Roderique jokes, she immediately began preparing to write an acceptance letter on behalf of the Paiute. “We have no sympathy for those who are trying to take the land from their rightful owners.”

“[P]eople have to have a certain mind frame in order to do things like this,” she said, as the screen behind her showed a coyote slinking between sandhill cranes. “They have a mindset… They have already in their mind decided what they want to do. Any rational conversation I don’t think is going to sink in.”

The moment seemed evocative of a quote by the late poet John Trudell: “It’s like there is this predator energy on this planet, and this predator energy feeds on the essence of the spirit.”

Roderique expressed an inter-generational heartache and anger over the mistreatment of the Paiute people by the US government, as well as the dams and lack of wildlife caused by settler practices in the region. Another tribal member, Jarvis Kennedy, explained the history of displacement, when the Paiute were offered a mere 10 acres in the city dump in return for the theft of all their lands.

The occupiers, we were told, are not from the area, and most are from out of state—as far away as California, Idaho, Montana, and of course Nevada. These are people with a will to die for a cause, but nobody will give them the satisfaction. So their hangers-on exist in a kind of limbo here in Burns, a ghoulish plane between life and death for which Malheur (a French word meaning bad luck, trouble, grief, and woe) seems an appropriate place.

Refuge or Sanctuary

We approached the wildlife refuge at around 2pm, soon after a news conference had ended. As the media began to clear out, we entered the compound directly. A large pickup truck was parked with two men inside chatting with a group of people.

“Can we walk in?”

“Are you with media, supporters, militia?”

“We’re with media.”

“You’ve got a first amendment right,” one man told us. “I’m not going to tell you you can’t.”

Walking through the compound, we were surprised at its size. A small house marked museum, comfortable looking buildings with their shades drawn, and a considerable number of vehicles. As the Bundys were in a meeting, we decided to return to the people at the entrance, but then a truck emerged down the path.

We flagged down their truck, and asked if we could speak with the two men inside, both dressed head to toe in camo uniforms. They agreed to talk briefly.

“How would you like to be identified?”

“My name is John Ritzheimer,” the man with a shaved head stated. We had suspected as much. Ritzheimer, the notorious organizer of the anti-Mosque movement in Arizona, found his name splashed across headlines from coast to coast for making threatening statements toward Muslims in the wake of the Paris and San Bernadino shootings. He gives the impression of a man deeply troubled by the state of the world. He also appeared to be a small man, though quite nimble and spontaneous, having served, he claims, 11 years in the Marine Corps.

We asked him about about his response to the Burns Paiute press conference, which he could not speak to, having apparently not heard about, nor did he know the name of the local tribe itself.

“We’re out here in Harney County and Malheur Refuge—I’m not even going to acknowledge it as a national refuge—what we have out here is a group of patriots, ranchers that are very knowledgable about the Constitution, and are willing to lay our lives down and defend that Constitution.”

“This is not an ‘occupation,’” Ritzheimer told us. “We are liberating this land so that it can belong to the local community… We may be witnessing the beginning of the abolishment of the Bureau of Land Management.”

“Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 clearly acknowledges to what extent the federal government can own land,” he told us. At that point, two trucks passed, stopped, and Ritzheimer got out to discuss safety with the arrivals.

While Ritzheimer was gone, we talked with his passenger, who identified himself as Blaine Cooper, also of the Arizona Patriot movement. Cooper recalled being present at the Sugar Pine mine and Bundy Ranch, and seemed ecstatic that the police had not intervened.

When Ritzheimer returned, he continued that the militias represented the ranchers who are “tired of being oppressed,” due to grazing fees. “We don’t want bloodshed. Nobody does,” he continued. “But if they want to turn this into another Ruby Ridge or Waco, we’re not going to allow that.”

At that point, another truck came through and stopped, eyeing us suspiciously. Ritzheimer passed us off to them, and we spoke with the driver, a local Burns resident bringing meat and beer into the compound. Sitting beside what appeared to be four hunting rifles stacked on the center console, the man spoke softly and somewhat equivocally about the resentment of people in the community toward the occupation.

Recalling a tender moment when he found the elder Hammond by the roadside freeing a deer from barbed wire with a ranch hand, the Burns resident stated, “see, they’re not such bad guys.” He did not mention the 2012 arson, during which, witnesses state that the Hammonds illegally killed deer on BLM land, handed out strike-anywhere matches to his hunting party, and told them they were to “light up the whole country on fire,” ultimately destroying more than 100 acres of protected land in order to cover their game violations. At the end of our conversation, he shook his head and reflected in a far away voice: “They’re wrong. They’re wrong,” he muttered. “But maybe they’re right,” he added with a wry smile.

Myth and Reality

That ambiguity seems to drive the standoff even in lieu of actual police presence. The patriots “willing to lay down their lives” do not seem beleaguered by law enforcement. In fact, this is one of the greatest ironies of the day. A Patriot movement that traditionally sees the local sheriff as the “supreme law of the land” has placed itself at odds with this local figure. This is because, Ritzheimer claims, the current sheriff was not elected.

The presence of federal law enforcement in the region is vexing to the militias, as it is for local citizens and tribal members, but they have not imposed themselves on the compound, so insofar as it is a “standoff,” it seemed relaxed. The occupation, if it can be called that, felt as soft as the rhetoric, from “liberating lands for local people” to protecting “white rights,” property, and land use. The camo and constitutionalism, however, hold a place in an extended history of Oregon’s colonial genocide, racist Klan activity, and neo-Nazi violence.

Despite Oregon’s revolting racist history as a racist white “utopia,” the state comes off as part of the “left coast,” a safehaven for gender, sexual diversity, environmentalism, and progressive ideals. Yet the myth and reality have been shaken by recent developments, as Oregon is increasingly known for its far right rebellions and debacles. Last year’s occupation of the Sugar Pine mine and the open carry rally in response to Obama’s visit to Roseburg after the Umpqua Community College shooting seem to lock into place in a narrative that includes the current insurrection in Malheur.

The far left must be much more assertive and proactive against far right organizing. With the real conversations surrounding race and Indigenous sovereignty happening in the US right now, allies in the Pacific Northwest need to step up our work to ensure that the myth of the patriot movement cannot build momentum from the spirit of Sugar Pine and Malheur.

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