Last Month in Oregon

White Terrorism and Colonial Dispossession

by Hannah Maier-Katkin

Illustration by Celeste Matsui

published February 5, 2016

On Tuesday, January 26th, FBI and Oregon State Police officers finally arrested armed militants, including brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who had been occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural eastern Oregon for a month. The occupation began as a peaceful protest in response to the incarceration of two ranchers, father and son Dwight and Steven Hammond. The demonstration quickly matured into a hostile takeover of a government building to impugn the federal control of public lands, which the protesting Oregon ranchers would like to see relinquished by the government for private use.

The Hammonds, the men for whom this protest began, were arrested for arson and charged under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996 after starting multiple fires and damaging property over the span of several years on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Dwight and Steven insisted that the fires were started on their own property and inadvertently spread to public lands. Official records from the trial, however, contain the information that, in 2001, the Hammond men illegally killed several deer on federal land and started a fire that eliminated the evidence. In the report from the District of Oregon’s U.S. Attorney’s office, jurors in the trial were informed that Steven, Dwight’s middle-aged son, distributed strike-anywhere matches and stated that he wanted to “light up the whole country on fire.” Dwight was sentenced to three months in prison, while Steven received one year. They both served their full terms. 

Upon their release, Dwight and Steven were faced by two federal prosecutors who considered their sentences unconstitutional in their brevity. Subsequently, both father and son were re-sentenced to five years in prison (minus the amount of time they had already served), after an appellate judge reviewed the case and overruled the shorter, more lenient sentencing that the two had initially received. All things considered, a five-year prison term appears generous considering it is the minimum sentence possible for arson under AEDPA—a piece of legislation best known for rendering it difficult to appeal, as the name implies, death-penalty sentences. 

The Hammonds have publicly separated themselves from the Bundy brothers and their supporters. They are in the process of requesting a pardon from President Obama that would keep them from returning to prison to serve their remaining years. Aligning themselves with a demonstration in which participants referred to the U.S. government as a “tyranny” would not likely increase the Hammonds’ chances of securing their own freedom.




The occupation of Oregon’s Malheur Refuge reignited discussion on an issue close to the hearts of radical conservatives: the transformation of federally-owned property into private or state assets. This right-wing demonstration is the apparent opposite of liberal movements like Occupy Wall Street. In 2011, unarmed protestors occupied private property including Lower Manhattan’s Zucotti Park, private banks, and corporate headquarters to demand greater government regulation of the private sector. Occupy’s Oregonian counterpart is essentially its inverse, in which protestors occupy public land in support of private use.

Ammon Bundy proclaimed that “the people can reclaim their resources” by having the federal government loosen its grip over the public refuge. With this assertion, Bundy overlooked the historical fact that the original claim on the land was not his, but rather that of the Burns Paiute tribe. No one has put it more succinctly than Charlotte Rodrique, the tribal chairwoman of the Burns Paiute Tribe, in an interview with NPR: “[the militants’] theme, of course, was that we’re going to give it back to the original owners, which were the ranchers. This rubbed me the wrong way because that’s our aboriginal territory.”

Evaluating the request from a financial standpoint, the plan to assume control of all of the federal land in Oregon does not seem feasible. Economists from the University of Utah, Utah State University, and Weber State University performed a study in 2012 concluding that if their state were to take over land management from the federal government, it would cost an estimated $275,000,000 per year. That same year, Utah passed the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act to demand that the majority of public land be transferred to state control. Nearly four years later, the land in question remains the property of the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

According to Time Magazine, 53% of the land in Oregon is owned by the government for public use, compared to 65% in Utah. These figures suggest that the costs of assuming control of federal land in Oregon, while presumably less than in Utah, would still be a significant strain on the economy—and might even require the state government to raise taxes. That same article noted that the United States government owns 23% of all of the land within national borders. The majority of that figure lies in the vast expanses of the West. These lands became property of the federal government when western settlers claimed the land as new states—disregarding the indigenous occupants. During the Oregon boundary dispute in the first half of the 19th century, the Americans justified their settlement by insisting upon the legitimacy of Manifest Destiny (a term coined in 1845 for Oregon to defend American interests in the aforementioned boundary kerfuffle), while contesting British claims and annexing Native territory.



The government generally allocated the land it seized to state governments and settlers who had travelled out to explore the western reaches of North America on the Oregon trail — especially in the Midwest. The federal government offered free grass as an incentive for settling cattle ranchers until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, prevented grazing on public land to correct a tragedy of the commons in which the land was widely used but not cared for. It was the first Roosevelt president, Theodore, who converted public lands into national parks to conserve natural resources, effectively setting aside federally owned and regulated land for mining, ranching, and conservation. Teddy Roosevelt was also responsible for the creation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—then called the Lake Malheur Reservation—in 1908. Even stating that the federal government owns and regulates the land confers a certain legitimacy to claims that erase the history of a people of the Native American tribes who lived there for thousands of years before Christopher Columbus encountered the ‘New World.’ 

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is composed of 187,757 acres of country. On-site research performed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that oversees the refuge suggests that Native Americans lived off of the land for over 11,000 years. The refuge contains over 4,000 artifacts belonging to the federally recognized Burns Paiute Tribe in Harney County, Oregon. Burial sites, petroglyphs and other remnants of the tribe’s cultural history, including documents and maps reside within the enclosure of refuge property. Members of the tribe continue to harvest the land. Rodrique was outspoken in requesting that these armed militants, who claimed legitimacy over the land (citing a “mission from God,” reminiscent of Manifest Destiny), be removed, stating that she “feels strongly because we have had a good working relationship with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge [and] we view them as a protector of our cultural rights in that area.” The “protestors,” she continued, “have no claim to this land; it belongs to the native peoples who continue to live here.” The government building that the Bundys and their associates occupied was, among other things, a storehouse of Paiute artifacts for conservation and research. 

Relations between the Natives and the federal government have become amicable only recently, and their current cooperation does not atone for the history of injustices that Native peoples have suffered. The Burns Paiute people sued the government in a case that lasted 35 years, reaching its conclusion in 1969. The settlement ended with compensation of $741 for 850 individual members of the Paiute tribe — the numbers were calculated based on the price that the government would have paid for the land when it was taken nearly 80 years earlier in 1890—had it been purchased in a consensual transaction. 

Chairwoman Rodrique vocalized her concern immediately, in early in January, that Paiute artifacts, and thereby remnants of their cultural history, could be harmed by the militant occupation. LaVoy Finicum, one of the men occupying the government building—and the only one shot and killed in an altercation with the police—posted a video on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page of himself and a partner earlier last month rifling through Paiute artifacts. He insisted that the government had left the cultural objects to rot in an office on the refuge, and he called for the Paiute Tribe to join forces against the federal authorities. In the video, Finicum says that he is “reaching out to the Paiute people” to return the cultural objects to “their rightful owners…to make sure we take care of the heritage of the Native people.” Finicum’s rhetoric proved unsurprisingly hollow and deceitful. One of the men involved in the armed occupation used a bulldozer to create a short-access road that extended directly into an archeological site of critical importance to the Burns Paiute Tribe. Chairwoman Rodrique wrote, in her second open letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey, that she feared “the demolition and construction activities may have harmed our burial grounds and disturbed tribal artifacts.” She went even further to express the concern that the militants, in search of money to support their efforts, could have easily walked off site clutching stolen Paiute objects with the intent of turning a profit.




Responses from the government and legal authorities have not matched the urgency of Rodrique and the Burns Paiute Tribe’s concerns. The local sheriff told those unlawfully occupying the refuge to “go home…[and] be with your families peacefully.” A statement released by the FBI illustrated the government response as “deliberate and measured as we seek a peaceful solution.” Kate Brown, the Democratic Governor of Oregon, took a firmer stance. She criticized the federal government for its impotent, delayed response, stating: “it is unclear what steps, if any, federal authorities might take to bring this untenable situation to an end and restore normalcy to this community.” In a country where unarmed black men—even boys like 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland—are shot and killed in the street by police who often do not face charges, it is unsettling to witness a case of white armed ranchers, who were antagonistic toward government officials while illegally occupying a government building, face much less opposition from the authorities.

The hostile takeover in Oregon led by the Bundys is, in its most simplified form, an armed occupation of a government building with the objective of furthering a political agenda. Major news outlets such as the New York Times have used headlines that describe them as “protestors” and called them “a group of armed activists and militants.” The Associated Press, as well, has described Bundy’s collective as “militia members.” The word “terrorist” does not seem to be considered applicable when discussing a group of white, Christian settlers. Until the arrests last week, these people were more or less free to come and go from the refuge as they pleased to grab supplies and visit community meetings.

This hesitance on behalf of the law to prosecute the Bundys and their followers indicates how the government is much more lenient in pursuing extremism when the extremists are white, even when they’re engaged in a federal crime that has been documented via a steadily updated collection of Facebook videos. Their online presence in the form of videos, rants, and benign requests for snacks has fueled the ridicule they receive. Some requests for donations, for example, have been greeted with shipments of dildos. Angry white people complaining about government control are easily dismissed by people who don’t feel the violence of their claims. Jedediah Purdy, writing for the New Yorker, said it would be “too much to call the occupiers ‘domestic terrorists.’” And he is right in pointing out that they have not been as violent or murderous as the Klan or the accused Dylann Roof in South Carolina. But it does seem more than fair to assume that if those armed occupiers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building were Muslim or people of color that police efforts to remove them from the land would not accompany the word “peaceful.”

The New York Times published an article at the beginning of January detailing how the Department of Homeland Security has focused greater attention on the threat of Muslim extremism, while ignoring the growing threat of white, right-wing extremists in the States. In a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2014, it was found that antigovernment extremism posed a far greater domestic threat than Muslim Americans, who face increasingly greater discrimination and suspicion, or radical Muslim groups such as Al Qaeda or ISIL. The data was collected by polling a sample of 382 police stations, after which it was discovered that 74% of them consistently “cited antigovernment extremism as one of the top three terrorist threats.” The number of sovereign citizen extremists—loosely organized individuals with strong antigovernment sentiments, who believe themselves to exist outside of the law—has grown drastically since the 2000s and poses one of the greatest threats to domestic safety, but is not treated with the same level of concern. 

The knowledge that right-wing radicalism would become a growing domestic threat has circulated at least since the 2009 report from the Extremism and Radicalization Branch of Homeland Security on the issue. The publication of this document only led to the dismantling of the branch, after receiving criticism from conservative lawmakers who considered the strains of extremism addressed by the report to be nothing more than “legitimate criticisms of government.” This tendency reinforces a national narrative in which the definition of terrorism is thrust entirely upon people who do not fit the normative, stereotypical American ideal of white, cisgender, god-fearing Christians. This selective crafting of an American identity, and the criminalization of those who do not fit its expectations, fails to represent the reality of the increasingly diversifying composition of the United States, but indicates quite clearly who it is meant to serve. 




Ammon and Ryan Bundy are currently being held without bail. There are still four people who refuse to leave the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, despite a request from Ammon to “stand down.”  David Fry, one of the few remaining, has stated—through the platform of an active YouTube channel—his intention to remain until supplies are exhausted. Fry explained, in his own fireside chat, “we believe people should stand their ground.” But whose ground is he standing on?


HANNAH MAIER-KATKIN B’18 is also living on Native land