ON YOUTUBE, a man in a cowboy hat waves his arms and, in a tight, taut voice that’s higher than you’d expect from a burly guy in a black Stetson, calls for followers to take over a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon’s high desert. He stands on a mound of old snow in the Safeway parking lot in Burns, the only town for more than 100 miles, and demands “a hard stand.”
“Those that understand, they came to make a hard stand. Those that know what’s going on here and have seen it for many, many, many, many years —” his voice gets higher and tighter, tauter — “Those who are ready to actually do something about it…” The man is Ammon Bundy, son of rancher Cliven Bundy, who has already taken on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and federal government at his own ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada. He tells those massed around to follow him to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and warns that officers have deployed there. The Fish and Wildlife Service dismissed employees at the refuge a few days before and told them not to return until the trouble passed. Questions rise from the crowd — “Can they legally keep us from going out there?” “Is it passable with a passenger car?” No and yes, he says.
He’d come to Harney County, called by divine injunction to the rescue of another ranching family, father and son Dwight and Steven Hammond, accused of arson on BLM land, an act officially classified as terrorism and carrying a mandatory sentence. The pair received one lighter than the law required, and the federal government vacated the ruling, demanding the Hammonds serve more time.
Some in the West thought the proceedings were part of a long-standing federal plot to persecute ranchers. Still, taking over the refuge was quixotic. It’s 30 miles from where Bundy speaks and even further from the Hammonds’ ranch, while the argument was with the BLM, not Fish and Wildlife, which runs the refuge. In the eyes of people like Bundy, though, all federal land is the problem.
Bundy’s stand in the Safeway parking lot came the second day of January 2016, a year when white rebellion was news and rural America became a demographic. The day before, on the first day of the New Year, he’d posted a rambling video online. “[T]he Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds […] there would be accountability,” he says, as if he had a direct line to God. His hands are clutched, a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. For him and many of his followers, the issue is not just about land or rights but divine right, a kind of Mormon Manifest Destiny, where the Constitution was handed down by God, and, according to them, the Constitution forbids federal ownership of land.
Soon the refuge was crowded with people claiming to be “patriots,” like the Pacific Patriots Network and Idaho Three Percenters (the portion of the citizenry the militia believes fought the British in the Revolution). They came bearing tactical gear, camo, guns, long arms, and arm patches reading: “2nd Amendment: America’s Original Homeland Security.” Heated community meetings were held on the county fairgrounds, the only place big enough for everyone to attend. Some told the Bundys and their followers to go, others to stay. The FBI came, and people on both sides claimed to be followed by unmarked cars driven by those on the other side. Three weeks later, a man was dead, Mormon rancher LaVoy Finicum.
He’d appeared on TV during the standoff wearing a peculiar cowboy hat/earmuff combination that gave him the look of a lean, long Mickey Mouse and was given to pronouncements saying there’d be no standing down. On January 26, he drove his truck in a convoy from Malheur over a remote pass with no cell service that I drive through myself a year and a half later. The state police and FBI pulled the cars over. Ammon and his brother, Ryan Bundy, surrendered. Finicum taunted the agents, gunned his engine, took off, ran his car off the road, and then ran himself on foot into the snow. The police said he reached for his jacket, where he did, in fact, have a gun. On video, it looks like his hands are up. It’s impossible to know which version of events is true. Finicum got gunned down.
The end came soon. Ammon Bundy called for everyone to leave. A few stayed, including David Fry, whose final standoff with authorities was live-streamed as he made federal agents all say, “Hallelujah.” Then he surrendered. The whole thing looked crazy to outsiders, something like that Marx line, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” and questions rose quickly about what would have happened had these been armed black protesters.
Months later, Ryan Bundy defended himself in court. Ammon Bundy talked in court of wanting to go home to the small town in Idaho where he now lived and back to his $500,000 McMansion where he’d received divine counsel to make his stand. The Bundy brothers were acquitted, and last year the other government case for their confrontation with federal agents at their father’s Nevada ranch in 2014 was thrown out of court, too. They won resoundingly, and that victory can feel like a narrative for our country today.
On the third day of the standoff, January 5, 2016, James Pogue arrived at Malheur. He writes for Vice and The New York Times, Mother Jones and Granta, and as soon as he reached the stone cabins that make up the refuge’s offices, he was asked to stay overnight in case the FBI came that evening. He was acting as a human shield or a witness or both. A few hours later, he and one of the occupiers, Jason Patrick, who was also prosecuted with the Bundys, climbed into a “government-owned F-250 diesel, manual transmission, that Jason had trouble getting into gear because of the AR-15 he’d jammed down next to the gearshift.” That would be the AR-15, the same weapon used in the Parkland school shooting, and this government-owned Ford pickup was stolen. The occupiers had no right to use it — all of which is to say that Pogue is embedded. That is the subject of Chosen Country, which details the standoff and events over the two years preceding it.
As narrator and participant, Pogue comes across as a slacker socialist, given to driving around the West and staying on public lands that make up nearly half of all territory in the Great Basin — some 80 percent of Nevada, nearly 65 percent of Utah, and more than 50 percent of Oregon. Pogue loves this communal resource. “[W]ho on earth,” he writes, “is a more ardent socialist than an American cowboy, pushing horns across 640 million acres of shared public land?” It’s a sentiment I share — or would like to. The image is fantastic even if it frays in his retelling.
Pogue went to the refuge because, he says, “I found New York boring and wanted to be around guns and trucks and sagebrush again,” all three of which get extended interludes in the book. His grandmother dies; so does an uncle. Drug-addled passages in Los Angeles follow. His personal story can seem like padding the narrative or trying too hard to justify his compromised choices in Malheur, but he has the luck of being in certain places at certain times, empathetic enough to understand what he sees unfold before him. At a time where right and left, urban and rural seem hardened into distinct sides, Pogue serves as a translator.
He lays out the background of rancher frustrations, explaining how the BLM and Forest Service changed with 1970s environmental reforms, and how the resulting regulations played out specifically for the Bundys in southern Nevada. The family homesteaded in 1877 on 160 acres secured through the Homestead Act. By that point, all the good land available under the act had long since been claimed, but the family eventually secured grazing rights to hundreds of thousands of acres up until the desert tortoise became an issue in the late 1980s.
The Bundy ranch is in the same county as Las Vegas, and the city and its rampant development were more of a threat to the reptile than cattle. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM curtailed grazing, because if the tortoises were protected in rural areas, development could continue in the city. Bundy’s neighbors all had slowly stopped ranching because they couldn’t graze, and Cliven Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees early into Clinton’s first term. A cycle of fines and court cases ensued until finally the government tried to impound his cattle in 2014. Militias and the media showed up; federal agents left. Last December, the government’s case against the family was declared a mistrial with prejudice. It can’t be tried again, but many in the West saw the Bundys as emblematic of the dangers ranchers face at the hands of environmentalists.
I understand that sense. I live in upstate New York, a few hours from New York City, and resentments run high in my community. The federal government requires the city to buy land here to conform to the Clean Water Act, and now the city is the region’s largest landowner and taxpayer. Because there’s no development on the land, the city already has lower taxes, which hurts the schools that are funded through property taxes. Tiny villages don’t have the money to mount legal challenges, and many here believe the city is now simply doing the bidding of environmentalists. A good friend, the former editor of the local paper and hardly a crank, will often say, “The city doesn’t want us here. They want a Disney version of the Catskills open only for hiking or fishing.” He claims too that the land buyouts are happening at the behest of environmental groups. I can see both sides with the ranchers and in Pogue’s retelling. The beauty in his writing is in how he earns their trust and takes seriously their concerns.
He captures this at another BLM standoff, the Sugar Pine. It’s a one-man mining claim — the miner has the rights to the mine but not to the surface, so he can dig down but not put anything on the ground, not a stamp mill, road, or cabin, essentially making the mine useless. A militia comes to his defense, and Pogue finds himself surrounded by young military types. The group’s head has complained about how after 9/11 the United States has stripped away people’s liberty, and Pogue wonders to himself and us why the people here are angry with the BLM and not corporate control of politics or prisons as an arm of the security state:
[O]ne of these kids piped up and said, “Well, you know, I think we’d like to.” People nodded. “But we can’t really, because we’re the kind of people everyone thinks are rednecks and racists.” I asked about Occupy Wall Street. “See, like, we would like to go to that,” another guy said. “But I don’t think they want us there […] And out where we live they do the same thing to those people as everyone does to us — like they just say they’re homeless and unemployed […] Like I’d like to go learn about them, the way you guys are here talking to us. But you can’t really do that in this country anymore.”
Pogue struggles with why we can’t talk to the other side; why the militia groups can’t see the bigger issues, the corporate capitalism that fuels the injustices the occupiers lament. As he describes the West of these uprisings, the Great Basin, Pogue writes that this is a “history-obsessed” place, but that history is selective (aren’t all?) and conservative, tied to family and farms and homesteading. Extending only to the later 19th century, the Bundys’ and their followers’ account ignores the longer history here, and so does Pogue. Left out of his narrative are the Native Americans like the Northern Paiute, whose territory spread far across eastern Oregon and northern Nevada and who’ve been in the region for some 10,000 years.
One of the first published books by a Native American woman, Life Among The Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, was written in the early 1880s by Sarah Winnemucca. Her story begins with first contact in the 1840s, and one entire chapter is devoted to Malheur. In an 1868 treaty with the United States, the tribe agreed to live on a nearly 1.5 million-acre agency (the term then for a reservation). The government’s payments to the tribe never materialized, or they went straight to merchants. Winnemucca details how the money was stolen by Indian agents, while promised projects — mills, homes, schools, and irrigation — were never built. The funds were appropriated and embezzled, while ranchers started to eke away portions of the land, paying Indian agents for the grazing rights. Finally with the 1878 Bannock War, residents were force-marched in the snow to the Yakama Reservation, 350 miles away. There they starved, and many died. Today, the Malheur Refuge sits on that land. At the refuge in 2016 Ryan Bundy said, “We also recognize that the Native Americans had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim.”
They did not. It was stolen, and the Northern Paiute still have open claims against the federal government. Meanwhile in southern Nevada, Cliven Bundy claims the land he grazes on as his “ancestral rights,” although the horizon of sandstone, springs, mountains, and ancient petroglyphs are also part of the Southern Paiute reservation designated by the government in 1873. Bundy’s history in this history-obsessed place is suspect, and Pogue doesn’t correct it.
Instead the Bundys and their followers fetishize the American Revolution with militias as the last stand against a tyrannical state, as Ammon Bundy and his followers established the Harney County Committee of Safety: a shadow government modeled on the citizen committees set up in New England during the War of Independence. It reminds me of nothing so much as how ISIS has set up acting governments in the territories it controls, or wants to. Both its and Bundy’s quasi-governments were fueled by fundamentalism.
The history-as-destiny of the occupation hews to the lines of Mormon beliefs that the Constitution was set down by God and needs defending by a few. Like many religious doctrines, it’s confusing, but Pogue sketches it out: how the Book of Mormon sees the United States as divinely sanctioned, an American Zion in the view of an 1843 statement from Joseph Smith. “[T]he Mormon people,” Pogue writes,
would “go to the Rocky Mountains” as a “great and mighty people,” and […] there they would wait, ready, for the time when “you will see the Constitution of the United States almost destroyed. It will hang like a thread as fine as a silk fiber.” At this point it would be saved by the efforts of a “White Horse,” some righteous person or a collection of them, standing in figuratively for the white horse in the Book of Revelation.
He tracks how these ideas still have a hold on thinking in the West. Since the 1970s, they’ve spread from Mormon fundamentalists through Glenn Beck and Orrin Hatch up through the radical Constitutional Sheriffs movement, where sheriffs believe they too have Constitutional powers, even unwittingly to Pogue’s own local Crown Heights bookstore where he gets a copy of the Constitution published by the silk-fiber-thread believers (copies are handed out too in some shops in my town upstate). What’s missing in Chosen Country, though, is a larger historical context. Smith’s prophecy from 1843 sounds a lot like Manifest Destiny, an idea developed also in the 1840s where being one nation ocean-to-ocean was the United States’s divine right, and today there’s a belief among the Bundys and their followers that the land is mine, that it should be private, not the government’s. Those ideas too have a history, also dating from the 1840s, and they come from the Catskills where I live.
“‘The land is mine,’ saith the Lord” was a rallying cry through my town and its neighboring communities in the early 1840s. Signs emblazoned with the phrase were placed in windows. Destitute tenant farmers went on rent strike. They were beholden to landlords, the wealthy Livingston family, mostly, but also the Van Rensselaers, and rent was onerous. The farmers would struggle on rocky soil, and the landlords’ demands were ridiculous. They retained the rights to anything that might earn money, all ore, mines, mills — even every waterfall that might become a mill.
The late 1830s and early 1840s can look much like today. With Jacksonian democracy there’d been a massive spread of enfranchisement in the 1830s as every white man got the right to vote, and soon there were cheap newspapers for every partisan point of view but no journalistic ethics. A recession fueled by land speculation began in 1837. Farms in New England were no longer profitable, and there wasn’t enough land to support a burgeoning agrarian population. People swarmed into cities to work in factories. Conditions were dangerous and wages plummeted. Anti-immigrant riots flared up, and in upstate New York, in the Catskills, farmers revolted.
By the time Lincoln was in office, the radical idea that any family should be able to settle its own land became the 1862 Homestead Act, and the convertible property was “public land,” meaning that taken from Native Americans. Any man or woman or minor without a guardian could settle 160 acres. This is the land the Bundys still believe they have the right to, not paying fees to the government to graze. The past they invoke, however, doesn’t consider how these ideals are forged in the context of Manifest Destiny, of colonization via the Homestead Act — or even a financial crisis whose repercussions sound familiar today.
Farmers who succeeded in the depopulated West did so because of socialist cooperatives like the Grange. That’s the picture of rural America I grew up with. When I was little, my father would stop in front of Grange buildings and tell me how the members created cooperative grain elevators and challenged railways’ price-fixing. He spent his whole life working on rural cooperatives. Lawrence Goodwyn delves into the history of the Farmers Alliance and the People’s Party in his excellent 1976 book The Populist Moment, explaining how they wanted the government to take over the railways and subsidize short-term mortgages against farmers’ crops so producers wouldn’t have to take out chattel mortgages or be in hock to wealthy merchants. Farmers could be sucked into crippling cycles of debt before they’d even planted a crop. Merchants would charge 25 percent interest or more, and prices for goods bought on credit could be nearly twice the price of cash. The railways, meanwhile, had been given millions of acres by the government as a federal giveaway to finance building train lines.
We are a country based on the yeoman’s dream, but the dream rarely materializes. Just as in the 19th century with its railway schemes, the dream has become a front for those wanting to privatize the land for other interests, minerals, mining, oil, or rich individuals longing for big spreads. One of the perpetual questions of our neoliberal age is about how the left fails to connect to those on the right voting against their greater interests. This is the issue with populism today. Why is it so conservative? Why, unlike other farming revolts, doesn’t it tilt toward socialism?
In Harney County, as well as the Bundys’ corner of Nevada, the last shreds of American socialism remain — rural electric cooperatives. They were developed as part of the New Deal, because no private utility wanted to serve rural America. Parts of Harney County didn’t have electricity lines until the 1950s and ’60s. Now the co-op’s members get subsidized power from public power projects owned by the federal government like the Bonneville Dam in Oregon created by FDR. The irony is that the Hammonds and their neighbors benefit from cheap electricity. Harney Electric Cooperative covers a region the size of Delaware some 20,000 square miles from Oregon into northern Nevada. This spring the manager told me his members distrust the government. They’re always skeptical of power from Bonneville. Meanwhile, he said, Trump wants to privatize the dams and other public power entities. “We keep fighting,” he says. “If Trump turns it private, we won’t have our power. We won’t be able to afford it.”
If they can’t, and they don’t have electricity, he describes the noisy single-cylinder diesel generators that used to light up ranch houses. “Johnny Poppers,” he calls them, for the popping choink-choink-choink sound they make. The manager also grew up in Harney County, in a town that no longer exists. It disappeared in the 1980s after environmental legislation killed the timber industry, and now the town is BLM land, without even a sign to mark what it once was.
Toward the end of Chosen Country, Pogue writes about the failures to connect larger ideas across the urban/rural divide, about the failure to see other sides. This was why the People’s Party failed, as Goodwyn relates. It couldn’t connect its radical ideas to urban populations. This time the pattern is reversed, and Pogue laments: “How do you say that this cause can be for all of us?”
I went out to Burns last fall a couple days before Halloween. The town felt haunted. At the gas station the attendants eyed me warily, or I felt that they were wary, as if the sense of being besieged hadn’t worn off. A sign said to “Get Your Non-Ethanol Fuel Here.” You need it for the two-stroke engines, the chainsaws and four-wheelers of rural America. Across the street a former garage was now occupied by something called the What-Not Shop, maybe selling junk or antiques or both, but the shop too was closed. Overhead, a billboard was missing. The steel armature was all that was left, three empty bays where the sign had been. It looked like the frame was left holding aloft a sky so high and blue it existed beyond hurt, beyond words. Across the street, the stucco building was a dusty dun shade with a for-sale sign stuck in the crumbling sidewalk. Even the walk/don’t walk sign at the intersection was blank. On the edge of town were the 760 acres of the Burns Paiute Reservation. It was like a subdivision, with new homes mostly, built on the land the tribe had cobbled together and clawed back since the 1970s, a hundred years after they were first given the land and it was then stolen from them. That night I stayed in a double-wide at the Malheur Field Station, where the FBI had been based during the standoff. The rooms were furnished with afghan blankets and old sofas, and a steel desk was inexplicably stacked with every issue of Poetry magazine for a decade running.
I pictured the FBI agents, with their guns and body armor and Oakley sunglasses, and wondered if any had opened the magazine to read Danniel Schoonebeek’s “Cold Open”:
The cottonwood could stand up from the rails and dust off her own blood herself.
Resume her cold work, untangling the grasses.
If you could watch my train resume its terrible campaign for the west.
Jennifer Kabat’s essays and criticism have appeared in Granta, BOMB, Harper’s, Frieze, The New York Review of Books, The Believer, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The White Review. She recently joined her local volunteer fire department.