Malheur, Part I: Sovereign Feelings
By Anthony McCannSeptember 7, 2016
Much of the legal tumult in the pretrial proceedings has been occasioned by the two most resolutely Sovereign Citizen defendants: Ryan Bundy and Kenneth Medenbach. While the latent Sovereign Citizen tendency of the Bundy circle is discussed in the first part of the two-part essay published here (the full essay was originally published in the LARB Quarterly Journal; part two will be posted here tomorrow), in the months since I finished this piece, Medenbach and Bundy have come out as full-fledged Sovereigns, possessed of the movement’s characteristic menace, legal wit, and paranoid pedantry — as well as, in Bundy’s case, a bit of holy fire and real poetic flare. Late in July, Bundy filed a remarkable sequence of documents with the court: they read like a conceptual intervention (surpassing in linguistic verve and intellectual frame many of the conceptual writing projects that have garnered such attention in North American avant-garde writing circles in recent years) in the problematic terrains of sovereignty, personhood, spirit, matter, and law. LARB readers can enjoy the sovereign poetics of Mr. Bundy here and here and here. In the filings, Bundy declares himself an “idiot” of what he calls “legal society,” asserts his incompetence in said society, as well as his right to that incompetence. He also asserts his non-identity with the legal person called Ryan Bundy, as well as his dominion over the beasts of the earth and his primary citizenship in heaven, while effectively denying the jurisdiction of the federal government over his body and spirit. He does, nonetheless, generously offer to participate in the charade of the trial that begins today — in his assigned role of defendant or, should the court wish to consider his versatility, in the role of bailiff or judge — all in exchange for one million dollars. Meanwhile, Medenbach, also representing himself, has been wearing down Judge Anna Brown, demanding at each of his court appearances that she initial her oath of office, evidently under the impression that Brown took an outdated oath when she was initially sworn in as a federal judge and is thus not really a judge at all, rendering all charges against his person and those of his comrades invalid.
The manic aplomb and absurd, perhaps inadvertent, wit of Medenbach and Bundy can distract from what is at stake here: the adjudication of the guerrilla tactics devised and employed on the people of Harney County by the Bundys and their friends in the name of ending public land as we know it. On my recent visits to Burns I found a community that, although interested in healing, was still divided and angry. “I think here we’re all suffering a little from PTSD,” one local business owner told me. Folks in town have expressed anxiety about an important recent ruling by Judge Brown which will restrict the prosecution’s use of testimony of “fear” as evidence against the occupation leaders and participants solely to situations in which conscious intent to intimidate can be clearly demonstrated. This was disappointing to many in a community that had been subjected to the presence of armed and often aggressive outsiders in their places of work, business, and pleasure, as well as at the doors of their homes, for months prior to as well as during the occupation. Whether following home federal employees, barging into an employee break room in the county court offices, or showing up at a local 4H meeting — the Bundy crew was always openly armed. This was unprecedented in a small, largely face-to-face community where almost everyone owns multiple guns, but no one ever avails themselves of Oregon’s open carry law. By week four of the occupation, when law enforcement moved into action against the occupiers, many anti-occupation locals were fed up and ready to act on their own. County Judge Steve Grasty recalls the alarm he felt the morning of the very day Ammon Bundy and the rest of the occupation leadership were later to be taken into custody, when a group of local mothers entered his office to ask him to do something to stop their sons from heading out to the refuge to put an end to the occupation themselves. Earlier that month, the Burns Paiute tribe, whose role is so important to this piece, had already taken action to deal with similar overpowering feelings of anger and frustration in their younger male population by creating a hilltop watch-post to absorb the energy of their outraged men. This social space, with its accompanying nightly bonfires, was to become, according to participants, as much about prayer, healing, and developing solidarity as it was about security.
The Bundy occupation was also probably as much about developing movement solidarity as it was about its demands, but that solidarity was established in a territory utterly unfamiliar to all the participants. To this day defendants seem baffled by the idea that they caused any fear or pain in the community they chose for their stand against public land. (“I have come to understand that folks who work for the government perceive my actions as threatening or intimidating,” said Ryan Payne, before the court, when entering his plea.) That the trial itself will continually adjudicate the relevance of subjective feeling seems perhaps appropriate and inevitable given that the whole Malheur drama can be seen as a story about a group of angry white men who captured some public (i.e., historically Indian) land in order infuse it with their collective feelings of sovereign outrage.
THEY MUST HAVE FELT great out there. Even if they didn’t really know much about it, even if they were (and they were) basically lost, it’s still an awesome place and it must’ve been great just to be there. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the question of what a place is, or what it is to be lost, or lost in place; let’s stick to the feelings, even if place is a feeling, and even if lost is often how one feels, or finds one’s way to feeling. It must have felt grand just to be there in that land, in that ’scape, there where they were — in a territory newly liberated, freshly invented, mapped out by the lines of their activity, of their feelings. After all, they weren’t just there, they weren’t just in it, they were it — and it, their own new thing, was cradled in all this shimmering enormity.
The Harney Basin of southeastern Oregon, which Ammon Bundy and his brother and their friends had chosen for their armed standoff with federal power, is one of the many basins that make up the Great Basin Desert that stretches over parts of Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon. It’s an affectingly beautiful space, full of all the silence and wind you’d expect. It’s the kind of place people call the Middle of Nowhere, where if you look long enough space starts to stare back, as it folds into itself and turns into time. You don’t really look at it: you’re in it, and being in it is like breathing it in. The wide open sagebrush plains are intersected by swooping lines of hills, volcanic crater rims, and the brooding basalt foreheads of the sage-stubbled buttes. The green sage and golden grasses are occasionally punctuated by the solitary enigma of a craggly juniper tree as the whole landscape tilts down toward the white-blue shimmer of the alkaline lakes of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which the Bundy gang had occupied as the foundational site of their Constitutionalist revolution.
Of course, I don’t really know what the Bundy gang felt about the landscape, and they’re all locked up now, or — in the case of one — dead, so they’re not going to be talking to me about it any time soon. But I suppose if they paused to consider it at all, they are likely to have experienced all that witchy beauty as fate, or Divine Providence’s revealed incarnate endorsement of their political theology and mission. One of the last holdouts — the irrepressibly garrulous Sean Anderson — said that he took the ease of the occupation as proof that God was behind it. Maybe Steens Mountain, whose sacred power it is hard not to feel, was a patriarchal ratifier for them, a snowy-headed Founding Father, presiding over the basin from the blue revolutionary distance — white-wigged like the mysterious period-dressed figure who appeared one weekend on the occupied compound of the refuge, as if sprung from the cover of the annotated Constitution all the Bundy boys seemed to carry on their persons at all times.
But however they did or didn’t think about it, it still must have felt grand to wake up and see that mountain every morning, to look out over the sage hills, the lakes, and the buttes, and then step out into that space, a territory they were imaginatively remaking with the movements and force of their bodies and minds. And given that the core issue of the occupation was sovereignty, over land and self — wasn’t feeling grand what it was all about?
They must have felt great at the very beginning too, on that day, day one — Ammon and Ryan Bundy, LaVoy Finicum, Ryan Payne, and the rest of the boys — pouring out of the town of Burns in their big-assed pickups, flags fluttering behind them, those doctored pamphlets of the Constitution pressed to each of their pounding breasts as they took the turn off Highway 78 onto Oregon Road 205; pouring over the snowy sage land and then up over the volcanic butte at Wright’s Point. From there a stunning view of the Harney Basin opened up, as the ribbon of road flowed below them in one of those improbably straight lines you can find so often in the highway-borne vistas of the American deserts. It took them directly to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and a God-soaked encounter with history and the personal hypostasis they had each conjured — of that monstrous abstraction called the United States of America — from their individual dreams, entitlements, and despairs. “Hallelujah!” that State would exclaim — through the mouths of its agents — six weeks later, as it took the last of them into its arms.
The Bundy vanguard’s caravan to glory soon ran into some obstacles, some of which would come to visibly hurt their feelings. The famous lack of food supplies, for instance, a product of the inconvenient urgency of divine inspiration. Feelings were publicly injured in the internet mockery that followed their famous plea for “snacks.” Still, judging by the girth of supply they left behind, that particular cry for help was overwhelmingly successful in the end. More stubborn — and, to occupation spokesman LaVoy Finicum, fatal — were obstacles presented by the people and history of Harney County. Increasing anger and frustration on the part of many locals, their unity in support of county officials and their rejection of the occupation, eventually gave the FBI the mandate for decisive action it had been awaiting while agents assembled evidence for sweeping federal indictments. On another level, the occupiers were also confronted, and symbolically (or even magically) defeated, by the complex history of the land they stood on — a history of which the occupiers seemed as definitively ignorant as they were ill-prepared.
The history of the territory the Bundy vanguard claimed to have set free was first brought into the media spotlight on day five of the occupation by the voices of the most unambiguous, defiant, and absolute community rejection of their enterprise — that of the Tribal Council of the Burns Paiute. The tribe is an important part of the local community, but the Bundy vanguard didn’t seem to even know they existed or had ever existed, judging from their reactions to the tribe’s emergence into the conflict at the Tribal Council news conference given on the small reservation at the northern edge of Burns (the county seat), about 30 miles from the refuge. The tribe has historically called themselves the Wadatika — which translates as eaters of wada (seepweed in English) — a plant endemic to the basin, especially to the zone that comprises the refuge, where the Paiute have harvested its seeds for millennia. The occupation of these ancestral lands by groups of armed white men demanding that the territory be turned over to white ranchers to use as they pleased was something the tribe had experienced more than once before.
“For them to say they’re going to give it back to the rightful owners, I had to laugh,” Tribal Chair Charlotte Roderique said at the conference. “I figured I better write an acceptance letter for when they give it back to us.” Tribal Council member Jarvis Kennedy was more direct: “They just need to get the hell out of here.” Kennedy also pointedly asked what would happen if he or a bunch of other native people occupied land — land that had actually historically belonged to them. As to the land that comprises the refuge and the rest of Harney County, Kennedy summed up the history thus: “we weren’t ‘removed’; we were killed and ran off our land.”
The story of the Wadatika is full of horrifying violence, inspired resistance, inevitable military defeat, and subsequent awe-inspiring persistence and dedication to the land of the Basin. Their imaginative modes of survival and rejuvenation — what Native American scholar Gerald Vizenor has termed survivance — are characteristic of the history of original peoples all over the continent. “We’re the ones who came back,” said Roderique, referring to what is called the Paiute Trail of Tears, a brutal forced relocation of the Wadatika and numerous other Northern Paiute bands in the late 1870s. “Nothing could keep us away.” The particularities of the story can be chilling, especially in the context of the Bundy takeover. Basically, without exactly “knowing” it, the Bundy boys were performatively recapitulating the entire violent foundational history of Harney County, a place most of them had never heard of until a few months, weeks, or days previously.
For centuries it had all been Paiute land — though, as the tribe takes pains to point out, traditional understandings of the land involve a type of relationship far more intimate than that imagined and codified by private property. “It’s more like family than property,” said Diane Teeman, the tribe archaeologist. The condition described in “owning land” feels brittle and impoverished indeed if your relationship to the land is closer to the connection you feel to your aunt or to your grandfather, than the one you have with your shoes. White folks had come relatively late to the basin. The first written record of white travel through the territory now occupied by the Wildlife Refuge and the rest of the county is from a fur trading company exploration headed by Peter Skene Ogden, whose expeditions provided initial reconnaissance to Europeans on much of the Great Basin Desert of contemporary Oregon, Nevada, and Utah. Here he is, from his journal, stunned by the size of the population gathered in the traditional camps at the lakes that form the center of the Wildlife Refuge today: “It is incredible the number of Indians in this quarter. We cannot go 10 yds, without finding them. Huts generally of grass of a size to hold 6 or 8 persons. No Indian nation so numerous as these in all North America [...] They lead a most wandering life.”
While, historically, the description of the lives of Great Basin native peoples as “wandering” has often been used to undermine their claims to their ancestral homes, it is hard to imagine a kind of life with a more intimate claim to land than that practiced by these desert tribes. The Wadatika followed a life of seasonal movements that themselves were part of a reverent, ceremony-filled attention to the land that had sustained their ancestors and their practices for millennia. The archeological record marks out the shape of a persistence of habitation and life practices hard to hold in the mind, as often happens in the deserts of the west, where human temporalities hang out with geologic time. People here, right here, hunted mammoths — and they were still here when the mammoths were gone and the land turned to desert, and they themselves turned to gathering, and to new hunting techniques like those used to catch rabbits in expansive nets in yearly drives, or the ritual magic used to charm herds of antelope so that they entered willingly into earthen pens. They also developed an internal map of the edible roots and seeds of the basin, of its buttes, and slopes, and of the forests in the mountains at the basin’s edge.
The circular movement of their years seems to have been powered by pulsations of contraction and diffusion. They came together to winter in temporary villages, near lakes and springs in the basin, as well as, in the height of spring, in camps on sunny hillsides and meadows when the fresh roots of certain key plants, like bitterroot, were tastiest. These root-gathering camps would also be times of joyous assembly, days of dancing, games, foot races — and later, with the coming of the horse, equestrian races as well. Afterward, small family-based bands would disperse into the mountains for summer seed and berry picking, and the tracking of game, all returning later to the lakes to gather other key plants — like their namesake wada seeds in early fall. All this allowed for both a richly varied diet and a richly varied life — if one lived always at the edge of subsistence. At the center of this life was an intimate relation to all the spaces through which they moved; rituals for passing through each type of landscape in the basin and the surrounding mountains are still practiced by members of the Burns Paiute tribe to this day.
The first catastrophic disruption of this traditional life came, predictably, shortly after Skene’s expedition, when waves of disease swept through the basin. After the trappers and their diseases came, of course, the settlers and ranchers — the arrival and claims of whom the Bundy gang seemed intent on reenacting in some finally definitive new way, there on the haunted land. Burns Paiute tribal archeologist Diane Teeman brought up the Skene description of the Wadatika population with me, adding, “the fact that there were really so many of us, that so many of us died — this is something that I think continues to be too painful for most people to face. The erasure of that dying is almost complete.”
Much of that dying would have happened in the basin by the lakes, when life was hardest and when the people were gathered together in the greatest numbers in their winter villages. Many of those who died were buried there, in that land chosen by Ammon and the boys as their winter camp, to hunker down in with their donated packaged snacks, their Pop-Tarts and Doritos and French Vanilla Creamer, while nodding piously about the Constitution and replenishing their neo-settler bodies with the collective sentiment that bound them in their loose confederacy. Again, they seemed to know nothing of this. When confronted with this history, Ammon Bundy could only say, “that’s interesting, I don’t know anything about that.” After pausing, he added, “but they deserve to be free too.”
The entrance of the Burns Paiute into the dispute troubled the leadership of the Bundy militia in a more significant way than any other issue that surged up during the principal period of the occupation. Their response to growing and widespread opposition to their actions in Burns among other sectors of the community, on the other hand, seems to have been an unwavering faith that their vocal supporters in the county were the true majority, as one by one they continued to prod local ranchers to take advantage of the opportunities they were offering. “Now is the time [...] [W]hen will you stand up if not now? If you are not willing to put everything on the table for freedom, are you worthy to have freedom?” exhorted the group’s one practicing rancher, the gaunt cowboy Finicum, sounding a little more scripted and fanatical than usual at a public meeting with 30 local ranchers at the hot springs in Crane, a little north of the refuge. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity; it will never happen again,” said the more pragmatic, relaxed, and genially bearded Ammon Bundy, referring to vague nascent plans to allot each rancher their federal grazing area through the county government (the same county government that was actually opposing the whole Bundy operation and calling for their forcible removal and arrest).
The Indians, however, were something else altogether. They refused to speak with the Bundy crew at all, not wanting to grant them any legitimacy, while offering a history that totally undermined the Bundy’s own made-up history. That made-up history claimed to show that the lands of the refuge had somehow originally belonged to ranchers who were dispossessed in the early 20th century by Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of an “Indian reservation (without Indians),” to quote the Bundy Ranch website. The alleged fake reservation was, in the Bundy story, merely the pretext for a federal land grab in the name of allegedly endangered birds (birds that were actually being hunted to extinction for their feathers by outsider professionals seeking big paydays from the hat industry). As is often the case in conspiracy theories, elements of historical truth stubbornly poked through the faked-up Bundy history, like the obsidian shavings, tools, baskets, and points that constantly emerge from the dirt of the Malheur Refuge. Yes, Indians were involved in this history, but they weren’t fake, and now they had shown up. It turned out there had been a real reservation — one the federal government had actually dissolved at the demand of an earlier generation of white ranchers and settlers.
The Malheur Reservation, which originally stretched from the north shore of the Malheur Lake up along the basin’s edge and into the northern foothills and mountains, was created to give refuge to all the northern Paiute bands of the Great Basin, who were facing massacres by bands of “volunteers” and starvation, as the fragile ecosystem of the desert was pushed to its limit. There simply wasn’t enough to go around as white settlement increased.
All this is vividly documented in Life Among the Paiutes, a surprisingly little-known book by one of the most fascinating people of the American 19th century — Sarah Winnemucca. Sarah was the daughter of the important Paiute leader Winnemucca and the granddaughter of an equally influential leader, called Captain Truckee by whites, who had befriended and guided John Fremont in his explorations, and come to identify the true source of white power in the “talking rags” they communicated with. Before dying in old age of a tarantula bite, he had sadly lived to see his hopes for peaceful White-Indian coexistence crumble. Nonetheless, at his request, he was buried with his favorite talking rag, a letter of praise from Fremont. He’d pushed his granddaughter throughout her youth to learn to read and write English — thus, as an adult, she came to be employed on the short-lived Oregon reservation as a translator. Short-lived because local ranchers began encroaching on it and demanding its abolition almost immediately. After a brief happy time, under the atypically competent and sympathetic administration of Agent Samuel Parrish, much beloved by Sarah Winnemucca, her father, and the rest of the Paiute on the reservation, settler pressures led to the installation of a new agent, a local merchant, William Rinehart, who was notoriously hostile to native populations, and evidently as corrupt as he was incompetent. The US army would eventually blame him for much of the desperate calamity that was to ensue.
Within months of Rinehart’s arrival, the Indians on the reservation began to starve and, by summer 1878, had fled to Steens Mountain where they were swept up in the grand arc of flight toward Canada known to history as the Bannock War. In the dark days before fleeing starvation on the reservation, Wadatika leader, Egan, for whom much in Harney County is named, gave the following speech. It was translated on the spot by Sarah Winnemucca and later included in her book.
Did the government tell you to come here and drive us off this reservation? Did the Big Father say, go and kill us all off, so you can have our land? Did he tell you to pull our children’s ears off, and put handcuffs on them, and carry a pistol to shoot us with? We want to know how the government came by this land. Is the government mightier than our Spirit-Father, or is he our Spirit- Father? Oh, what have we done that he is to take all from us that he has given us? His white children have come and taken all our mountains, and all our valleys, and all our rivers; and now, because he has given us this little place without our asking him for it, he sends you here to tell us to go away. Do you see that high mountain away off there? There is nothing but rocks there. Is that where the Big Father wants me to go? If you scattered your seed and it should fall there, it would not grow, for it is all rocks there. Oh, what am I saying? I know you will come and say: Here, Indians, go away; I want these rocks to build me a beautiful home with!
Seated listening to Egan as he spoke was a figure I find most intriguing in this history so full of fascinating people living moments of continual crisis: Oytes, shaman and leader of a band of southeast Oregon Paiutes; also a practitioner and proponent of the Dreamer religion. The sect, which had originated in previous decades to the north on the Columbia Plateau, rejected farming and the private individual ownership of land as unethical, insupportable violations of the earth that potentially blocked access to the spirit world, as well as access to the coming new earth, where the dead and living would mingle, and whites would be no more.
Egan was not to live long after giving this speech. Soon he and many of his people would be pulled into the revolt of their neighbors and relatives, the more famously resistant, buffalo-hunting Bannock. The mass movement of the Bannock War, of thousands of men, women, children, and horses — across the deserts into the secret valleys of Steens Mountain, and from there out again between the buttes and over the hills and flats of the basin, up into the Strawberry Mountains where they met their final defeat — was breathtaking in its momentum and scope. The logistical talents of the Bannock and Paiute bands — at this point under the somewhat reluctant command of Egan who had replaced slain Bannock leader Big Horn — befuddled the army pursuing them under the perhaps equally reluctant leadership of General Oliver Howard, former head of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the man after whom Howard University was named. When the Bannocks and Paiutes had reached the Umatilla homeland, in the mountains north of the Harney Basin, Umatilla leaders, feigning willingness to join Egan in flight, met with him and killed him for a reward. His head was taken as a souvenir and, after much travel, ended up in Washington, DC. Not until 1993 were the Wadatika able to bring his head home. From his contemporary Burns Paiute reservation gravesite, Egan was to slip secretly into the decidedly more symbolic and spiritual warfare of January 2016.
Ammon Bundy’s wishes of “freedom” for the tribe, which accompanied his profession of ignorance of their existence, were quickly undermined by his own brother, Ryan, who was widely quoted as saying that the Paiute had “had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim.” He followed up his might-makes-right assertion with a further justification that rang strange coming from an armed reactionary: “the current culture is the most important.” The Bundy movement certainly seems more a war on the current, dominant culture than a defense of it. Its popular appeal (and as silly as the occupiers seem to many, they have inspired thousands and thousands of people) relies on its radically conservative, lone-cowboy-in-the-desert style and stance. Their movement coalesces for the first time, in the figures and principles of patriarch Cliven Bundy and his boys, three elements of the radical right: the Mormon Constitutionalist and Sovereign Citizen movements, and the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion.
The Sagebrush Rebellion, sporadically ongoing since the 1970s, has taken many forms in its pushback against any impingement on the priority of ranching life west of the Rockies — a priority the Bundys insist is mandated not only by the Constitution (which is confusing given the absence of cow-herding from that document) but also by the holiness of ranching as a pursuit. According to the Bundys, the first people to receive the word of God were cattlemen. The fact that ranching life often seems, in the gaze of the current culture, a quaint vestige of the Old West doubtless adds to the tragic appeal of Sagebrush rebels like the Bundy gang for the much larger patriot community.
The larger contemporary Sovereign Citizen and Mormon Constitutionalist movements are much richer in conspiracy and magic. The two have many common historical roots stretching back to the Posse Comitatus (“the Power of the County”) white supremacist militia of the 1970s and the Mormon fundamentalist Constitutional theories of right- wing scholar Cleon Skousen — a favorite thinker of Glenn Beck, Ben Carson, and Orrin Hatch — whose annotations and often misleadingly selected or altered quotes graced the pocket Constitutions carried by many members of the Bundy gang at Malheur. The many articulations of Sovereign Citizen and Constitutionalist ideology share a rejection of the authority and even the existence of the post–Fourteenth Amendment federal government, and, in many of its versions, including those seemingly practiced by Cliven Bundy and his crew, a vision of true Constitutionally sanctified citizenship only accessible to whites.
These beliefs carry with them a need to rewrite the history of slavery in the United States: Ryan Payne, for instance, is known to have said that he doesn’t believe slavery actually happened; Cliven Bundy, along with Skousen, has said he believes slavery may have been a better deal than freedom “for the negro.” The “true citizenship” imagined by the “SovCit” movement — which is often, but not always, exclusively white — is figured as a state of divinely enforced and endorsed being; something called “natural law” is invoked as often as the Constitution, speaking up when that document falls mute. In some sectors of the movement, the state of grace that is Sovereign Citizenship is believed to be accessible in this life through an ornate sequence of legal operations known as “redemption.” The correct performance of these operations liberates the SovCit from the admiralty law governing the United States since the Fourteenth Amendment, and places them under the authority of the “true” Constitution. For some, this process also promises adherents access to occult funding streams — namely, the collateral accounts the US government is alleged to have been setting up in the name of each child born in the country since the end of the gold standard, in order to guarantee the dollar.
Clearly, white panic plays a major role in all of this, even when that role is not overt. As the last few years have taught us, for many white folks the very idea that black lives might matter can only be read as an existential threat: a popular chant of pro-Bundy supporters in Harney county was “ranchers’ lives matter.” That this particular back-to-the-Constitution thing begins with Skousen and others in the 1960s, when the federal government starts intervening to protect the rights of nonwhite persons, is not a coincidence.
Threaded through the Sagebrush-SovCit-Constitutionalist ideological stance forged so successfully in the heat of the 2014 Nevada Bundy Ranch standoff — which brought the Bundys together with many of the participants in the Malheur occupation — are elements of Mormon history and faith that form a mythological understanding of the American past that was also in play in the Malheur pageant. According to the Bundys and many fundamentalist-leaning Mormons, including Bundy intellectual forefather Cleon Skousen and his friend and supporter, former LDS church president (and Secretary of the Interior under Eisenhower) Ezra Taft Benson, the Constitution itself is a divine document. Cliven Bundy has taken this claim a step further and actually asserted that it was written by Jesus himself. Comments by Ammon Bundy and others reference the famous “White Horse Prophecy,” rejected as apocryphal by the leadership of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, but still widely held as credible in the West. The prophecy, allegedly received by Joseph Smith in his dying days, foretells a time when the Constitution will “hang by a thread” and it will be up to the Latter-day Saints to save the United States. Apparently, for the Bundys and their associates, that time had come, and with the urgency of the moment, and the time compressions and recapitulations that characterize the apocalyptic and messianic, figures of the past began to return, voices in the desert, preparing the way for the true reign of the Constitution. A pair of these were sighted by reporters in the first days of the occupation.
On day two of the occupation, one of the first reporters to arrive at the compound came across one lone militant guarding the entrance — a figure straight from the official mythology of the Latter-day Saints (regarded by the church as true American history). The man, identified after his arrest weeks later as Dylan Anderson, at the time gave his name to the reporter as Captain Moroni from Utah, adding, “I didn’t come here to shoot, I came here to die.” Soon after, a wave of articles on the Bundys, Captain Moroni, and Mormonism rolled over the internet. Googling Captain Moroni, a key figure from the Book of Mormon, was an education in itself.
First off, it’s not Captain Moroni, it’s Chief Captain Moroni, as the grandfather explains to the cutely eager, blindingly blond grandson he surprises going through the leather, brass, and glass fetishes of masculinity on the desk in his study in the opening of the official LDS video I found on YouTube. The boy has just accused his grandfather of being a real hero — he’s dug up the World War II memorabilia — but Grandpa, of course, must disagree. He was just doing his duty, et cetera — but he’d be glad to tell the tale of a real hero if his grandson would like to learn. As he opens up the weathered Book of Mormon he picks up from his desk, and reads the following passage, his eyes grow more intense: “Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.” As he reads, the study scene fades into a clamorously violent, expensively produced battle scene, in a forest of trembling aspens, between sturdy white warriors clad in standard Hollywood ancient warrior garb (picture Braveheart or Gladiator) and a fleet horde of somewhat darker-skinned fighters, whose Magua-esque hairstyles, clothing, and weaponry mark them, anachronistically — unless you are familiar with the Book of Mormon’s North American prehistory — as Native Americans. These, Grandpa explains, are the Lamanites, and they have come to make war on Moroni’s Nephites, a peace-loving people with a peace-loving leader who find themselves unwillingly drawn into war.
In the history outlined in the Book of Mormon, both Lamanites and Nephites are Children of Israel who came to America by boat around 600 BC. The Lamanites had been “turned dark” by their turning away from their covenant with God. According to Mormon doctrine, they are the ancestors of all Native Americans — a history contravened by the considerably older archaeological record that surrounded the occupiers of the refuge every which-way they turned. The video goes on to show a mind-boggling if also riveting scene in which the leader of the Lamanites is humiliated and actually scalped in front of his own people. Moroni also figures prominently in Book of Mormon episodes in which he stands up to would be tyrants and enemies of freedom among the Nephites themselves. These days he is often imaged in Conan the Barbarian book-cover style, enormously muscled and scantily clad in shining gold armor and helmet, righteously glowering with his personal flag, the Title of Liberty (much displayed at Bundy Ranch in 2014), fanning out behind him. One Mormon commentator on the events at Malheur recalled that when playing as a child all the boys wanted to be Moroni.
A few days later, a figure more widely familiar to Americans visited the land of Malheur to join the Chief Captain, stopping to pose for a photograph that remained — to my eyes — one of the more stunning images of the whole occupation. Though he never revealed his name, given the uniform, the wig, and the imperious stare, it just had to be the Founding Father himself, George Washington — already so well represented in the curious image on the cover of the Constitutional pamphlets poking out of seemingly every shirtfront pocket. Here he was in the flesh — resurrected. Given the circumstances, it only made sense that he’d taken off his civilian clothes and put back on his warrior garb, the full uniform of the Continental Army, to step into the unfolding Now.
I’ve pulled the picture up again on my screen as I write this. I’m looking at a middle- aged white man in an amazingly well-tailored costume; this thing is custom-made. He’s also got a big tricorner hat, white-powdered wig poking out under it. Lots of shiny brass, white gloves, and frilly white shirt-cuffs busting out of the jacket. There’s also a sword — enscabbered, strapped to the waist; the hilt is dangling at the belly. There he is in the snow, one foot forward, presenting himself as if for a duel. Behind him stands a white pickup truck and one of the older buildings of the refuge. The sky is gray and there’s snow everywhere, so his clothes provide most of the color in the picture. The eye contact he’s making with the AP photographer broadcasts a firm, uncompromising nature, as does the tilt of the frown, which seems judicial in its measured but absolute severity. He’s carrying a book in his hands. I can’t make out what it is but I suspect it to be the sort of text upon which one might swear a binding oath.
Karl Marx addressed revolutionary dress-up a long time ago, in regards to the costume and rhetoric of the ancient world appropriated in the French Revolution and then again in the revolution that brought on the reign of Louis Napoleon. For Marx, it was necessary for the practitioners of bourgeois and reactionary revolution to dress up their relatively prosaic aims in the grand feeling and outfits of times past. Friedrich Nietzsche addressed the same issue when he wrote that the modern European “simply needs a costume; he requires history as a storage room for costumes. To be sure he soon notices that not one fits him very well, so he keeps changing. [...] It is no use. [...] it ‘does not look good.’” Poor Nietzsche did not live to see this fine-lookin’ fella, but his point is well taken. He goes on, in this same passage from Beyond Good and Evil, to give us a little bit of his typically nihilistic hope: “perhaps this is where we shall still discover the realm of our invention, that realm in which we, too, can still be original, say, as parodists of world history and God’s buffoons — perhaps, even if nothing else today has any future, our laughter may yet have a future.”
And it is true that the laughter bottled up in this AP photograph of militia-inspired cos-play is a richer, harsher laughter than the thin, Bill Maher kind of mirth called up by the prank gifts the internet sent the occupiers (dildos and bags of dick candy) in response to their foolishly worded, widely broadcast plea for “snacks.” It’s a thicker laughter; it’s got wonder and delight in it, as well as incredulity and despair. It’s a laughter that laughs at the whole American enterprise, at Walt Whitman’s expansive rhapsody reduced to what it has always been at heart — a settler’s story, a brutal farce — a map drawn up by white men with guns, to be pinned to the indifferent earth with flags.
But soon Nietzsche’s laughter dribbles off into befuddled silence, and now I pick up another image. Here, at my desk, I’ve got my own copy of the Cleon Skousen-annotated Constitution that poked from every Bundy gang front pocket. It’s just come in the mail and the first thing I notice is that the picture of Washington on the cover seems to be an image not of a living body but of a statue — a digitally reproduced or manufactured image of a painting of a statue. And not just a statue, but a wax museum sculpture. The face is a dead mask, the unseeing eyes meet but don’t meet mine, while the right hand is permanently stretched out toward me to offer a plume so that I might too become signatory of the great document laid out in the picture’s foreground on the table between us, that I might bind myself to it, take the sacred oath.
As I lean back and think about it, I decide it makes sense that it’s not the “real” George Washington depicted on the cover, but rather an image of an image. After all, both here and at Malheur, it’s not George who’s returned, but his dead image that has come to life — as it does constantly in the United States, where his picture on the dollar bursts into speech in so many ads offering everything from mattresses to sound financial advice. (Anthropologist Michael Taussig has written much about this kind of kitschy necro-magic in his work on State Fetishism, work that came to mind for me often during January 2016.) On the back cover of the pamphlet, undead Washington, this unseeing representation of the representation, is also offered to us as a personal witness to our commitment. There is a line where one can sign the following pledge with that proffered plume:
I, as one of We the People of the United States, affirm that I have read or will read our US Constitution and pledge to maintain and promote the standard of liberty for myself and my posterity, and do hereby attest to that by my signature.
Beneath the signature line is the reproduced signature of a solitary witness — of course, again, it’s Washington himself. All the millennia of the witchy European oath magic that grounds the West’s fraught relationship to law and language, as Giorgio Agamben and others have persuasively argued, comes pouring through this somnolent mountain of kitsch. Somehow this silliness is also deathly, necro-social seriousness — an oath, no less, witnessed by George Washington, no less. What kind of outcast would the person be who signed this and then turned his back (or her back? are women allowed in this club?) on the true Constitution? Would they lose their true sovereign citizenship forever? Would they find themselves outside the magic circle of (white) American being — sliced off from the We the People Cliven Bundy invokes with such absolute authority in his fiery petitions, to wander, like the Lamanites, unprotected, killable, in the wilderness?
There were other, less spectral visitors to the refuge: day trippers, including local ranchers, came and went by the dozens. In their visits they could learn about the Constitution from Ammon, the rest of his crew, and whatever visiting self-annointed judge or Constitutional scholar happened to be cruising the grounds. Among the vanguard, Ammon’s brother Ryan might have been the most insistently militant. He liked to draw a distinction between an inalienable right and a privilege, and there was something Sovereign Citizen about his understanding of the difference. A right needed to be believed in and claimed, he explained to ranchers at the meeting in Crane, or else it lapsed into being an alienable privilege, which could be taken from you. Grazing, he insisted, was a right — deliberately confusing or confused by the language used by the BLM in its administration of a legal good that is clearly meant to be alienable — after all, “grazing rights” are for sale. But to listen to Ryan and his brothers, not even the Supreme Court had the right to interpret whether grazing was a right, or what a right was, under the Constitution. No mediating interpretative power was to come between the people and their Constitution.
This gives us maybe the clearest glimpse of what kind of United States they were proposing. What they seemed to want, essentially, was the nation without a federal government, a confederation of individuals, governed by its Constitution alone. The minimal bureaucracy involved in administering the business of this confederation would be left to the county or the state — or “We the People” — depending on whom you were talking to. Kieran Suckling, of the Center for Biological Diversity, long-term adversary of the Bundy war on public land and endangered species protection, told me that, after the Crane meeting, he asked Ammon how he could trust, and how he could guarantee, that whatever county government he proposed to turn over the administration of the lands of the refuge to would be less inept or corrupt than the federal government he despised. “Each time he gave me the same answer,” Suckling said: “‘the Constitution wouldn’t allow it.’” When Suckling followed up by asking what would happen if he and a neighbor interpreted the Constitution differently, Bundy replied that this wouldn’t happen either. The document simply said what it said, and would resolve everything.
This was the witchy stuff going down at Apocalypse Ranch. If all this sounds like religion, it’s because it probably is — but so, arguably, is run-of-the-mill nationalism. Capitalist economics itself, as Marx so famously pointed out, can be seen as more of a theology than a science. The Bundys are just practicing the fundamentalist, charismatic, revealed religion versions of the state and property fetishism all of us participate in, in some way or another. Maybe this is what makes it all seem so silly, because it’s actually quite familiar. (God’s buffoons, indeed.) At Malheur, the jubilant atmosphere persisted as if all the occupiers weren’t in danger of being carted off to federal prison at any moment — perhaps Ammon had convinced them that the Constitution wouldn’t allow it. As Kieran observed, one of the strangest things about the occupation was its mood — how pageant- like it seemed, how endlessly weird and sometimes even fun. Until you remembered all the guns.
Part two of this essay is available here.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!