How NOT to think about the Bundy Militia in Eastern Oregon

 

By Joseph Orosco (January 5, 2016)

So far in the analysis of the Bundy militia in Eastern Oregon, I haven’t seen anyone point out that the closest historical precedent to this incident happened fifty years ago in Northern New Mexico.

In October 1966, Reies Lopez Tijerina led an armed group into the Kit Carson National Forest and occupied the Echo Amphitheater Park. They quickly proclaimed the area the “Republic of San Joaquin del Rio de Chama”.  Tijerina claimed the federal land for the descendants of the original Spanish land grants. For several years, he had been petitioning the state of New Mexico to recognize that the land grants had been illegally confiscated by the US government, in violation of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo–the agreement that put an end to the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848. New Mexico officials found no basis for his claims and Tijerina felt compelled to make a stronger statement.

After a few days, the three hundred or so members of the occupation left the forest and Tijerina, along with a few others, was charged with assault on the park rangers and released on bail. Tijerina called for a meeting to reassess strategy, but state law enforcement arrested some of his followers on the way to the meeting. This led to Tijerina gathering another armed group that raided the county courthouse in the village of Tierra Amarilla. A shoot out occurred—a couple of police were shot—and Tijerina’s group fled into the mountains. The state response was swift.

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The National Guard was called and tanks rolled through Northern New Mexico in search of Tijerina. He later turned himself in, but not before becoming one of the heroes of the Chican@ Civil Rights movement. (You can listen to a corrido, or ballad, dedicated to him here.)

The Bundy militia are much less justified in their claims and far less grounded in any historical legacy that might give them legitimacy. They are calling themselves the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” and demanding that federal land in eastern Oregon be given to the local ranchers to control and freed from the tyranny of big government.

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This call is ironic, first, because many, if not most, of the people occupying the Malheur Wildlife Preserve are not from Oregon. And second, because the cattle rancher association from eastern Oregon has repudiated the take over.

But it is also tragically ironic because the Bundy milita does not seem to acknowledge that it was the US government that made it possible for there to be a ranching industry in Oregon in the first place. Starting in the 1800s, homesteaders started arriving in the region and running herds of cattle. These changes affected the ecology of the area and began to displace the Paiute natives who had lived there for hundreds of years.

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These early ranchers turned to the US government for protection from Indian raids and the Army began what was essentially a campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Northern Paiutes. The US government finally gained an upper hand over many of the native tribes in Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada in 1878. Many of the Oregon Paiutes were forcably relocated to the Yakima reservation in Washington. Others were put at the Malheur Reservation, which was eventually closed by the US Government in 1879 because of pressure from the local ranchers. The Malheur Wildlife Preservation Center sits on what was that Paiute reservation. The Burns Pauite Tribal Chairperson has said that the Paiutes refuse to dignify the militia with an official response, only observing that they seem to be motivated by “greed and anger.”

This history of land use probably doesn’t interest the Bundy militia who have fashioned some kind of holy war justification for their occupation, one that blends Latter Day Saint symbolism with right wing extremist hatred of the US federal government. This situation should worry us—it is one more sign of a growing white supremacist trend that can be connected back to the Charleston, South Carolina massacre last year and all the way to the bombing of Oklahoma City in 1994.

While I think this incident is something to pay attention to, I don’t think it’s helpful to respond to it in a couple of ways that I have seen in social media. One response has been to try to push the mainstream media to brand the Bundy militia as “domestic terrorists”. The other response has been to mock them on social media using hashtags such as as “YallQueda”, “Yokelharam”, or “YeeHawd”.

I don’t think it’s helpful to invoke the language of terrorism because this reinforces the view that the state has a monopoly on force and is justified in responding with overwhelming violence to groups it finds threatening. The war on terror framework and its emphasis on violent first responses not only led to devastating wars against Afghanistan and Iraq but has also led to the militarization of local police forces all across the country. We don’t need the language of terrorism to believe that a white supremacist-patriot movement needs to be countered by justice.

And while I admit I initially found the social media attack on the milltia as funny, I worry that it has become something that reinforces a glib, urban stereotype of rural people. I think many urban dwellers have little awareness of the political struggles going on in rural areas. The gentrification battles that motivate many liberal activists in the cities are also going on in the country and it is often the federal government that is stoking the fires, continuing to create conditions that led to Tijerina’s uprising fifty years ago. In places such as Colorado and Northern New Mexico, the US government has sold off parcels of land to developers who build multi-million dollar mansions for the 1%, while ranchers and village residents watch ancestral homelands disappear and are forced to become service workers in the tourist industry serving the new residents. There are many rural residents who are fighting progressive battles, and we should be careful not to use frameworks that stigmatize them or rural ways of life as somehow backward, or less advanced, as those of the city.  All of this is not to say that the Bundy militia interpretation of the federal government’s land use policies is accurate; it is simply to point out that when we talk about building more just political economies, we have to take into account the ways government and capitalism have shaped our rural communities, especially in the West, and find vocabulary of common cause for our collective liberation.

1 Comment

  1. elona

    I’d offer another perspective, which is that the US government holds a monopoly on the ability to name some group as “terrorists”. Naming this group as terrorists may possibly, as you suggest, support a violent response from the state, or it may ultimately reduce the kind of state-given militant response that quasi-militant uprisings from people of color have endured.

    The more commonplace a word becomes, the less power it has over the masses and the less justification the government may have to respond with force.

    I suppose we’ll have to see how it plays out.

    Reply

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