Malheur, Part II: “Ours but Not Ours”
By Anthony McCannSeptember 8, 2016
AND THEN, SUDDENLY, the Wadatika Band of Paiute Indians appeared (they’d never left) and dragged the whole actual history of the land the Bundys were standing on into the light. Suddenly the boys discovered that the land was chock-full of material refutations of the improvised historical narratives they were offering, and that these literally leaked up everywhere through the dust and the muck, threatening to change the story decisively: they would no longer be liberators of ranch land in the name of oppressed locals and of the holy Constitution, but rather yet another gang of armed and desperate white riff-raff, settlers from outside come to grab whatever they could muscle in on, with some flag-waving and mission-from-God talk as cover for the same old land lust.
Their panicked sequence of responses suggested they felt the urgency of the moment. The attention of the gang turned, morbidly and forensically, to the containment of the physical evidence — the artifacts stored on the refuge — of this return. This kind of containment is impossible in the end — as we all know from our dreams — because the return of the past is continuous; it’s an endless arrival. But that didn’t stop the gang from trying, digging themselves the proverbial deeper hole, culminating in the colossally ham- fisted move of offering the Paiute the chance to come down and pick up their stuff.
It was the man who had become the occupiers’ informal spokesman who took the most active role. Good-natured and drawling, LaVoy Finicum appeared in at least four videos in the last week of his life, including one filmed and posted on the day of his death, that directly addressed the Burns Paiute tribe. In each he pleaded for dialogue, while expressing increasing befuddlement at the tribe’s absolute refusal of contact.
His confusion and evident total sincerity can make these videos painful viewing — especially the one that got the most views. Finicum and two other men are seen going through the boxes of artifacts in what looks like a dark basement while Finicum answers questions from the man behind the camera, Blaine Cooper. Finicum starts out by making it clear that the visit to the archive room is a pretext to reach out again to the Paiute, “the rightful owners” — a phrase repeated often in the three-minute video — of the objects in the room. “We’re looking for a liaison,” he says, “because we want to make sure these things are returned to their rightful owners,” before pointing out particular artifacts and beginning to enumerate the wrongs they’ve suffered. Of immediate importance to Finicum — it clearly seems to him cause for serious outrage — is the rodents’ nest he says he’s discovered in one box. Cooper interrupts to summarize, saying, “basically the BLM or whoever was in charge of these native artifacts [it was the Fish and Wildlife Service] just kind of boxed ’em up and left ’em to rot down here.”
The boys move through the room, checking the artifact tags to confirm that some of the stuff has “just been sitting down here [...] locked away here for nobody but them [the feds] to look at whenever they came down here.” Sometimes for as long as 35 years! Finicum reiterates his plea for dialogue, even going so far as to state a willingness to hear about the Paiute claims on the land (claims that Ryan Bundy had dismissed) before the video concludes with another plea, this time from Cooper — a plea that could only have sounded respectful to a group of people hopped up on the sovereignty of private property: “the rightful owners need to come back and claim their belongings.” To anyone else it sounds like the Paiute just got evicted from a storage space.
It just wasn’t going to be that simple. The boys weren’t going to pack up history and hand it off, “respectfully,” to the “rightful owners.” “It’s not just the artifacts,” said Tribal Chairperson Charlotte Roderique. “We’re in the dirt. Our history and culture is in the soil. We’re still in the soil.”The problem for the Paiute wasn’t so much that there was dirt on the artifacts, or that animals had been in the boxes where they were stored, but that the artifacts were out of the earth at all, and being gone through publicly by a man whose words and actions, despite his constant repetitions of his desire to be respectful, were nowhere near appropriately reverent.
This misunderstanding extends beyond the Bundy gang’s relation to the Wadatika — it is the source of the ever-present conflict between Native American people’s relation to their ancestral lands and pasts and the discipline of archaeology and the epistemology that underpins it. Tribal archaeologist Diane Teeman explained this to me very frankly, in reference to her own ambivalence about her profession. For Teeman, “It’s a community in the dirt. I use that word. And when we dig it’s an offense against that community. It’s why I became an archaeologist, not so much to participate in this particular knowledge-gathering system of the West, but to minimize the offense that archeology is to these communities in the soil.” Teeman recognizes this as a somewhat quixotic position. I was struck by how it was also a very practical one, devoid of any of the absolute, all or nothing, “when will you stand” purity that was to kill Finicum in the end. Archeology is, after all, here to stay for the moment. It has tremendous power over how the meaning and value of lands immeasurably precious to the Wadatika are culturally and legally determined on local and national scales. Teeman sees no choice but to participate and hope that something like what she calls “real collaboration, not just adding an Indian or two to your team” will keep happening, as it has in her tribe’s relationship with the Fish and Wildlife Service archaeologist on the Malheur Refuge. She hopes that, as this kind of collaboration increases, it will form part of a larger development of “more robust” transcultural knowledge-gathering practices that might, with changes in laws governing artifacts, eventually lead to some or all of the artifacts stored on the refuge being returned to the dirt communities from whence they came.
In the end, the video did elicit a response, but not the one Finicum and his friends had hoped for. Two days after the video of Finicum in the artifact room was posted, the Burns Paiute wrote a letter to the US attorney general and the FBI urgently demanding action — the video was at the center of this escalation of pressure from the tribe. Tribal Chairperson Roderique cited the historic obligation articulated in the 19th-century US treaty with the Northern Paiute to ensure the prosecution of “any crime or injury [that] is perpetrated by any white man upon the Indians aforesaid [...] according to the laws of the United States and the State of Oregon.” These clauses, sometimes called “bad men clauses,” highlight the complex, deeply ambivalent relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government, one the occupiers didn’t seem to understand well — and one that came into play with increasing importance in the ongoing conflict.
The artifact video gets creepier the more I watch it: it’s like Finicum is surrounded by so many ghosts that he can’t see them. It’s like he can’t see them because they are everything: they are the air he’s breathing, the ground he’s walking on; they are what’s stored in the boxes stacked on boxes stacked on boxes; seeping from the objects chipped by hand, used, and discarded for millennia by the people known as Paiute and their ancestors. It’s the nightmare of the settler, repackaged as Stephen King horror: he’s totally surrounded by silent Indians, even if in this case their silence is the silence of the dead. And he can’t sense that silence, because he’s the one talking, telling his own story about how horrible for the dirt and animals, how horrible for the poor artifacts, this sacred property, to sit in a room undisplayed for 30 years — a timeframe with no significance when one considers the near- geologic timescape of native presences and absences. It’s like he’s in the middle of a ghost dance but he can’t hear or feel or see a thing as it slowly turns around him, like he can’t see the images that already now are pouring through his flesh.
And then you have to remember that this store of artifacts — wherein the absence of thousands of Native American bodies surface continually toward presence — this is nothing: the ground of Harney Basin he’s walking on every day is full of these “belongings.” They are buried in the dirt and marsh muck, and just lying on the surface. Nobody will ever be able to come by and pick it all up. You can’t just leave history out on the stoop for the “rightful owners” — it’s everywhere, it’s in everything. He’s surrounded by relationship, and he’s also in one — one he’s not going to be able to dictate the terms of, especially by resorting to discourses of liberty and property. And it’s going to kill him. Soon.
I first talked to Jarvis Kennedy a few days after the death of Finicum in the January 26 FBI operation in the Malheur National Forest’s Devine Canyon, about 30 miles north of the wildlife refuge. “You know,” he said, “we don’t think it’s a coincidence that he died. No disrespect. We feel for his family. We didn’t want that to happen to him. But you can’t go messing with objects like that without protection.” Kennedy went on to explain some of the rituals of respect and protection he and others in the tribe do when they come upon artifacts: “whenever we find anything [...] we bless it, say a prayer, or sing, sprinkle some tobacco or sage on it, and return it to the earth, because it’s ours but not ours. I think that’s hard for people to understand.”
Many explanations of cultural practices I heard during my week in Burns, and in subsequent phone conversations, have been punctuated with variations of this: “I don’t know if you can understand that,”“it’s hard to explain,”“it’s hard for people to understand.” These refrains, usually coming at moments of intense interest for me, moments when I felt very much like I understood and was dying to hear more, have served to remind me to be skeptical of how much I think I do understand — and to remember that no matter what affinity (or envy) I feel for these types of knowledge and ritual practices, I will never have the same kind of access to the temporalities of survivance that these rituals emerge from and open onto. Neither, of course, did Finicum, which is why he was able to imagine that something like a dimension, threaded through the land and through the Paiute, could somehow be boxed up and returned to something called “rightful,” something called an “owner.”The ontologies of property and sovereignty that sustain white being and that have determined the cultural and economic relations to earth that shape both me and Finicum, however differently, can’t be easily wished away either — it will take a lot of work, a lot more of the collaboration Diane Teeman talked of, and maybe something more dramatic as well.
When I first asked Diane about her relation to ownership and property, she explained that of course the Paiute historically had no such conception — not in any way that corresponded to the absolute notions of the Bundy gang — and that, for her (and she felt that this was the case for many other Paiutes), the land feels like a relative. “It’s a family relationship. Ownership doesn’t describe that. You can’t own your relative. Everywhere around here, all the dirt I dig up in my garden, my ancestors are woven through that, and that land is woven through me. I don’t know if people can understand. It’s hard to explain.” In her scholarly work, Diane has touched on the inadequacy of ideas not just of property but also of the sacred to describe the Paiute relationship to landscape. Compared to the vocabulary Diane offers in its stead, the language of God and Law seems both pompous and impoverished. While the typical picture of a “nomadic,” “foraging” culture like that of the Northern Paiute might describe their concept of land ownership as nonexistent and their religious practices as “animistic,” Diane proposes a different understanding of landscape as a palimpsest of ever-shifting relations — so that, in her words, “an action on a landscape is not only an action on prior acts and events but also the people who were involved in those activities.” The old line about walking lightly on the earth acquires added urgency in the context of these words.
It also makes her gardening complex. And not only because the dirt is like a relative, shot through with the material traces of her ancestors. Our conversation turned, at one point, from the dirt to plants and the seasonal gathering cycle. This brought us back to property, sedentary agriculture, and a Wadatika figure I’d been reading about with growing fascination in the Harney County Library Western History Room: Oytes, the Dreamer prophet and shaman from the time of the Malheur Reservation, who had sat beside Egan as he delivered his speech of rebuke to Agent Rinehart. There was no strict catechism for Dreamers, but Oytes was known to have strongly rejected agriculture and with it private property, as the great Dreamer leader of the Columbia Plateau, Smohalla, had done. Smohalla explained to a US army ambassador, who had sought to convince him and his people to take up farming and ownership of individual plots of land in order to become “civilized,” that both land ownership and work were prohibited to Dreamers. “Men who work,” he said, “cannot dream.”
Smohalla explained further that those who violated the earth by owning it or digging deeply in it to cultivate plants for consumption would lose access to the coming world, when the earth was literally overturned. All the native dead would return with this refreshed and plentiful earth, alongside lost populations of animals and plants, as the dream world merged with this one. Diane had her own thoughts about Oytes’s principles. “I think I can see what he meant,” she said,
there is something very strange ... kind of absurd ... about taking one part of the earth and saying only this kind of plant will grow here now, and that this plant’s only purpose is to be eaten by me. I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately in this way. It does totally go against our sense of reverence and reciprocity. It’s so important to acknowledge that nothing exists just for me; if we take a plant, or part of a plant, we always make an offering, or ask permission. We need to respect the plant’s liberty. Sometimes people nowadays leave coins.
I remembered, with excitement, that I had seen a few coins out earlier in the week, on the sage-covered rims of the lava flows east of the refuge. Later that week — on the Walker River Paiute Reservation in Nevada — I was to see coins in cups placed on the grave of the most famous of the Paiute Dreamers, Wovoka, the prophet of the Ghost Dance of 1890.
Wovoka’s ghost dance emerges at a different historical moment than the practices of Smohalla and Oytes; the Bannock War has been lost, at horrifying cost to so many Paiute. The possibility of escaping the white man’s regime of property and work has come to seem impossible; there is nowhere to hide, and violent resistance has proved again and again to bring only more terror. Wovoka’s messianism proposed a more give-unto-Caesar approach to the white world than Smohalla’s. This acceptance of local white wage economies and regimes of property went on in one dimension, while the dance and its trances operated in another, bringing on the return of a renewed earth, and of the native dead. “They are coming,” Wovoka said in a letter to Cheyenne visitors. The time was ripe; Jesus, he said (the religion was thoroughly syncretic), had already returned to bring the refreshed earth with him. “He appears like a Cloud,” Wovoka said in English to an Arapaho delegate taking dictation at Walker River, “everyone is alive again, I don’t know when they’ll be here.”The new land that was coming would overturn or literally bury the property regimes and political realities of the whites as it arrived with all the resurrected dead — human and animal. The spirit world would be completed and poured out onto the new earth. And finally there would be enough to eat.
The relation of private property to messianic Native American practices, like Wovoka’s Ghost Dance and the Dreamer Religion from which it emerged, is often overlooked. The primary narrative of the Ghost Dance focuses on the adaptation of Wovoka’s teachings by the Sioux in 1890 — and the subsequent slaughter at Wounded Knee. As such, it is understood in the dominant cultural narrative as a kind of grand and elegant farewell of Native peoples, when actually it seems to have been more of a strategic reinvigoration and key tactic of survivance. Wherever messianic practice has surged up in Native America, the violent imposition of the absolute reign of private property has usually been involved. The struggle that went on between the Paiute tribe and the Malheur occupiers this winter was, on a more politically unconscious level, the continuation of an older struggle. In many ways it was a battle between, on one side, the inheritors of the vast tradition of which the Ghost Dance was one instantiation, keepers of a relationship to land and time that is, at its heart, indifferent to sovereignty, and, on the other side, the cowboy mysticism of sovereignty, property, and violence that coalesced, in this instance, around the Bundy family. In week four of the occupation, it was violence, perhaps the true “title of liberty,” that was about to surface, sadly and seemingly inevitably, in its most overt forms.
On January 26, LaVoy Finicum filmed one more plea to the Paiutes and then, joined by Ryan Payne, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, Brian Cavalier, and Shawna Cox, headed up Highway 205 in a pair of trucks toward the snowy, pine-stubbled mountains. This was basically the entire leadership of the occupation — all veterans of Bundy Ranch. Despite the increased surveillance they’d begun receiving from the FBI in the wake of the tribe’s letter and the intense pressure from local and state authorities — pressure the earnest and genial Finicum had responded to the previous day with ominous reassertions of his willingness to die — they must have all felt pretty great. This was a potentially momentous occasion. They were on their way to John Day, a mountain town in adjacent Grant County, to a public meeting where they were to speak along with Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, an avowed Constitutionalist who carried the same Skousen Constitution they all did, and had recently even been voted the “Lawman of the Year” by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Even more importantly, Palmer, to the horror of law enforcement, had spoken out against the FBI in favor of the occupiers, just the day before. The possibility of another occupation, and the growth of the revolution that they had been living on the Malheur compound, must have augmented the intensity and excitement of purpose that had so visibly animated their strides since the first drive out to occupy the Refuge on January 2.
In John Day, a crowd was already beginning to assemble to hear them speak — but they would never arrive.
For the moment, though, they must have felt great — they were the vanguard of a vanguard, traveling with mission, galvanized by it, through that landscape already so conducive to expansive feeling. The territory they moved through could only have collaborated with their feelings: as they came up over Wright’s Point, the basalt and sage of that butte top was bewitched with snow; next, as they crested, the white and gold, salt- blue and green distances of the basin and the highlands sprang open all around them. In a few more minutes they reached the end of 205 where, joining 395, it turned up toward the foothills, winding through snowy fields of golden grass into the mouth of Devine Canyon. It’s an intoxicating ride, the kind of drive that makes you want to sing along. It’s especially thrilling in the first moments of entering the canyon; as the road curves, and the canyon snakes up and up into the mountains, its chunky basalt walls rise on both sides with the solemn authority of Easter Island heads. As you move, the walls continue to grow around you to the twisting measure of your ascent. It’s one of those everyday sublime automative moments the American West is so full of, where the world itself seems to expand to the thrill of your own fossil-fueled momentum.
I took my rides up Devine Canyon under considerably different circumstances, but ones stained with the affect of their ride as I imagined it — and even more deeply infected with what followed shortly after. Especially conscious of the magic borders of federal property, I imagine they must have noticed the sign announcing they were crossing over another invisible line as they burst out of the top of the canyon into deep snow and pine slopes and into federal land again — this time, the Malheur National Forest.
From this point on you can watch it all on YouTube, in the full-length or edited video clips provided by the FBI. In the long version the aerial camera hovers over a line of dark vehicles parked on a forest access road; you can see Finicum’s white truck, with the smaller, less visible gold-colored jeep that carried Ammon Bundy and Brian Cavalier just behind it. The line of black trucks begins to pull out of the forest, but the camera has stayed with Finicum, or with his avatar — his truck is really the main character in the film. In 30 minutes it will still be spinning its wheels in the snow while tiny Finicum has already expired, shot down amid his own pleas to be shot, interspersed with demands to see his friend, the Constitutional sheriff. For the last part of the video, he’s lying there in the snow with one arm raised like an antenna — I wonder what images his body received with his last breaths. Meanwhile, his truck spins on and on, churning its wheels, still stuck in the deep snowbank to the side of the police barricade he’d tried to run; small figures move in and out of the growing assembly of other trucks as the afternoon turns toward dusk. Some of those tiny people moving around down there are his comrades, being taken in, one by one, with ceremonial slowness, into the body of that vast abstraction — the government they professed so much hatred for, and yet with whose power and violence they had sought an almost religious intimacy.
Death magic and the fetishism of violence was everywhere in the days after Finicum’s demise. I arrived in Burns a week after the arrests, and spent a week in the Silver Spur motel, which had already achieved a celebrity of sorts as the motel of choice for the militia. The place was full of militia and media when I got there. An older, affable, if rattled-looking dude, in camo and backwoods beard, smoked and guzzled 32-ounce cups of gas station coffee while muttering to himself on the snowy balcony, fulfilling a certain stereotype of a militia guy. More of these dudes were young, with intense stares, some with cowboy hats, but many with black-hooded sweatshirts. There were a number of women as well, also grim smokers, shivering outside their rooms in the mornings while their trucks defrosted in the lot below them. One woman had even brought her horse. The press bustled about with their own sense of mission. There were at least two documentary filmmakers at the motel. One night, I listened, transfixed, to one who occupied the room next to me while he paced on the balcony telling someone on the phone the story of how he’d been trapped in John Day, waiting to film the meeting the night of the operation that snagged Payne, Cox, and the Bundys, and killed Finicum. He’d had to loop around the mountains to get to the refuge before the FBI arrived. The panic there was wild, he said, he’d gotten some great footage.
The town was especially tense because BJ Soper, of the Pacific Patriot’s Network militia, had announced plans for an operation — a “miracle” he called it — for that Saturday, February 6, that would somehow escort the last four occupiers from the refuge, through the cordon of Elite Team FBI Agents that were penning them in. What this plan was nobody ever learned, because on Friday Soper changed plans. Now he asked everyone assembled in Burns or en route to meet for a rally at 1:00 p.m. at the vast improvised memorial that had sprung up at the side of the road on the snowbank where Finicum had been shot. There was a five-foot cross and many flags, including an inevitable confederate one — the kind with an automatic weapon and that slogan from the Alamo on it. A photographer I’d met at the restaurant down by the now closed-off entrance to the refuge had explained how easy it was to find — so, with a few free hours Saturday morning, I decided to go check it out and see what magnitude of death aura was leaking from the roadside shrine. I headed up early that morning, hoping to spend some time alone at the site before the militia converged.
On the drive up though the landscape, my sense of mission increased — as did my pleasure and discomfort with that pleasure. I put on music — Neutral Milk Hotel — it seemed perfectly suited to the redneck (to use a favorite Finicum word) mysticism of the whole Bundy thing and its spermatic patriarchal erotics. “Semen stains the mountain tops” — this phrase was repeating as I moved through the canyon, growing more and more trepidatious as I crossed Poison Creek, approaching where I knew the site had to be. As I emerged out of the top of the canyon into the forest, I recognized the road from the video where the line of FBI vehicles waited. But then something happened — or nothing happened, actually. There was no memorial. I passed out of the National Forest into a wide, high mountain valley, given over to a particularly large-seeming cattle operation: dark shaggy cows traveled in slow elaborate circles through the snow behind big red machines spewing out moist gobs of green and gold shredded hay. I continued on, confused, reentering federal land, more rocky, snow-covered pine forest. After an hour of driving I gave up. I needed to get back to town for a phone meeting with Diane.
In that conversation, Diane explained in depth to me the Paiute concept of puha, a spiritual substance. “Because puha is the power or essence of each person, it’s on everything they make or use, so that traditionally we bury people with all their most important possessions, less important stuff is burned — so that none of it can cause harm to the living and so that the part of the soul of the dead that must travel to the Milky Way isn’t held back.” Diane told me about all the preparations she had to go through in her work as an archeologist, to protect herself from sickness. Her own father had suffered from a mysterious ailment for a long time, traveling to see Western doctors and shamans on various reservations before a shaman at the Bannock Reservation at Fort Hall had a vision of a disturbed grave in a mountain pine grove that her father recognized as one he had passed through before becoming ill. It’s because of puha that the tribe was certain Finicum had been placing himself in mortal jeopardy in that video in the artifact room. And because of his own puha and the evident turbulence of his spirit during his time on the refuge, along with the violence of his death, the refuge was now an even more dangerous site, one that would require serious cleansing before tribe members would be comfortable returning.
After talking with Diane, I had a few more hours before meeting Jarvis at a big community dinner for law enforcement in Burns, so despite all I’d just learned about puha, I looked up the exact coordinates of Finicum’s death site and set out to try again. I’d seen lots of pickups, festooned with enormous flags, headed north past the motel earlier on — I figured I wouldn’t miss it this time. Following the same route, listening to the same music, I felt a new degree of mission now spiked with extra dread as I snaked up Devine Canyon and into the trees.
I was right, this time I couldn’t miss it: there they were, and there it was. Where this morning there had been nothing but a bank of roadside snow and its special aura of fatigue, there was now an uncountable sea of flags, and a little wooden cross. There were white people on both sides of the road, some stomping back and forth in the snow, a few raising more flags in a clump of pine, while others paced the road. The woman from the motel rode back and forth on her horse in front of the growing memorial. I recognized many faces from the Silver Spur, but this time they met my eyes with an open hostility that ignited my paranoia about the whole enterprise — this mass bath in the invisible substance that leaks from every site of sudden, violent death. I drove on slowly into that same valley, turned around near the same cows, now huddled in wind-defensive clumps in the snow, and, snaking through the crowd again, headed back down the canyon in silence — dread having drowned out all sense of purpose.
When I got back to the motel, I found out what was up — why all the glares and why I hadn’t been able to find the site earlier. In an unexpected confirmation of my feeling that there was a magic war being waged in these parts, I learned that the original shrine had been removed in the night by unknown hands — presumably to thwart the rally at the site of Finicum’s martyrdom. News articles were already posted quoting an enraged BJ Soper offering a $500 reward for info about who had done it. He had promised to buy “every American flag in town” and rebuild the memorial. It certainly looked to me that he had.
That night I met Jarvis at the big dinner. He’d been out of town, and, as we still hadn’t met in person, I told him what I’d be wearing so he’d recognize me. He texted back: “I kind of stand out in this crowd.” And he did. He’s at least six feet and three inches, with the build of a lineman, and a ring of feathers falling from his eye tattooed on his cheek — he’s a tattoo artist by trade, besides being the current sergeant at arms of the Wadatika Tribal Council. We found each other immediately in the mob scene of white folks in winter gear. An hour- long line circled the enormous hall to get burgers being cooked up by a crew of ranchers in cowboy hats on the biggest grill I’d ever seen, out back in the snow. In the center of the room was the party of Harney County Sheriff David Ward, whom the dinner was honoring, along with the rest of law enforcement that had been involved. Eventually Jarvis and I worked up the courage to get in the line; we had a long time to talk, occasionally interrupted by local folks coming up to thank him again for saying what they hadn’t been able to.
As we circled the room, I brought up a story Diane had told me about the repatriation of Egan’s head. Members of the tribe had flown to DC to get the eloquent chieftain’s skull from the Smithsonian. Many rituals of protection had been required of the delegation, as the skull had undergone much disrespect and mistreatment. I was stuck on images I’d formed in my mind of the delegation sitting at the gate with the skull in some kind of special skull container under the TVs blaring CNN. Or, on the plane, flying over Nebraska, the Dakotas, the Continental Divide with the man’s head — was someone allowed to hold him in their lap during take off? Diane reported that many members of the tribe had felt, despite Egan’s importance as a hero of the Wadatika, and the fact that he was a blood relative of many in the band, that to bring his disturbed remains back onto the reservation was to invite sickness and calamity. In the end, the repatriation party prevailed. Once back on the reservation, the Wadatika returned Egan’s head to the earth, and did rituals and offered blessings to try to bring him peace. This history reminded Jarvis of a moment in January, a prayer gathering in the early days of the Malheur occupation, not far from where Egan’s head is buried. Facing east on a hillside, the group had made a number of offerings and prayers for the resolution of the occupation, and sung songs around a fire — until, Jarvis said, they had all begun to feel their numbers grow. The sense he had was that Egan and the other dead had joined them, were standing behind them, in an expanding semi-circle. “You felt it, right?” he asked an already nodding companion.
This reminded me of Russell Thornton’s demographic revitalization argument about the Ghost Dance. Thornton makes the case that, as the self-understandings of Native American groups changed, and their numbers decreased, the need for the political presence of the dead grew. He argues that participation in the Ghost Dance was related to crucial demographic revivals among many groups on the verge of dying out. I asked Jarvis if that companioning sensation of warriors backing up the small circle assembled on the hill that January night had felt like a kind of ghost dance to him. He said, while he doesn’t think much about Wovoka generally, he had found himself thinking of the Ghost Dance prophet in the intense days of the occupation. “Maybe he was thinking about this time,” he speculated, “maybe he saw this conflict. My own father always told me another battle was coming someday and that me and my brothers should be ready.” We fell silent for a moment; slowly we circled the whole room on our way to the grilled meat.
If it was a kind of war, and Jarvis told me later it had felt like a war to him, it seemed to me that it was being fought at the strange confluence of politics and magic, where power and feeling are gathered into bodies, as bodies are gathered in feeling. In the end, the Paiute had clearly been better prepared for this kind of warfare than their opponents. With their ghosts came the earth itself, and that earth sustained and supplied their ghosts. This earth was the very earth the occupiers stood on, earth they had no understanding of except insofar as it held potential economic value — fuel for cows — for their imagined rancher constituency. Really, they had known nothing about what they were getting into, they had no idea where they were — something that became painfully evident in the cell-phone video of Shawna Cox, shot from inside LaVoy Finicum’s truck after it was pulled over by the FBI. Finicum had admitted his total ignorance of the landscape in an earlier interview. He said when he arrived at the refuge on January 2 that it was the first time he had ever been there, but he’d seen a bald eagle taking off from a fence post as he hurtled down 205 and taken it as a sign that this was the place.
I also saw an eagle on a fence post, on my way out of town the next day. And I was thinking of Finicum too, headed back down 205 one last time. I had decided to take the long way home, around Steens Mountain, out to the Alvord Desert, and down the back way to Winnemucca, Nevada. I felt an imaginary line running through me as I drove — the line they’d traversed that last day — running in reverse, north to south from the National Forest to the Refuge, between the new sacred site of the militia, where Finicum had expired in the snow next to the churning wheels of his truck, and the ancient sacred earth of the Paiute where, if you listened to the tribe, Finicum had contracted his fate.
Up again I went, over Wright’s Point; again the basin unfurled beneath me, running out toward snowy Steens to the south. I stopped again at the closed entrance to the refuge, and tried to eat again at the restaurant at the Narrows (great chicken fried steak), but after an hour and a half of waiting I had to split: they were swamped, this time with FBI agents — at least 25 of them. This was a totally other collection of white-man energy: neatly trimmed beards, pre-weathered baseball caps, nicely fitted jeans and t-shirts — and each one in a different stylish windbreaker or light-weight zip-up wool or leather jacket. Where did they all shop? Mostly they were talking about the upcoming Super Bowl, when they weren’t trading stories about various kinds of manly recreational equipment. I bought some hard-boiled eggs and nuts and shoveled them into my face in the car, pulling out onto the refuge at an unguarded point a few miles down the road, where I climbed a butte up through the sagebrush to get a last look at the marshes, the pastures, and the lakes.
When I first met them, I’d asked both Diane and Jarvis what it felt like to spend time on the land of the refuge, with the knowledge of that sublime persistence of their people in that landscape. Diane had said that, whenever she is walking on the land, as she often does in her life and work, everywhere she looks she sees obsidian shavings or even objects, the whole basin is full of them. “Everywhere I go I feel accompanied,” she said. “In this landscape I never feel alone.” “Oh man,” Jarvis had said, “just go down there to the refuge. You’ll feel it when you get there. You’ll just see them there ... you’ll see the people in their winter villages, all the wickiups, smoke rising from the fires, people in reed boats fishing on the lakes.”
I had found on each visit out to the basin that it was as Jarvis had said — I could see them there, moving among the reeds, smoke coming from the wickiups that themselves looked like big clumps of sage. Maybe reed boats nosing through the reeds on the lakes. Sentimentally, I began to imagine the voices of children, as I thought also about something Charlotte had told me, about learning as a child to make baskets of the tule that grew here — baskets for egg gathering. She was taught to whip one together in a few minutes right there in the marshes. She was also taught by her grandmother that, when she found a nest of eggs, she could only take one if there were at least three; she had to leave one for the birds, one for the coyotes, and then if there was one extra she could take it. While looking out over the lakes and finding it surprisingly easy to picture the scene Jarvis had suggested, I also noted how different that landscape would be to me if I had, like Charlotte, been taught to weave baskets of the reeds that grew there. It would be a different experience if I had often gone stepping quietly through the marshes in search of those nests with at least three eggs, and if I had done it under the tutelage of a grandmother who reminded me that little girls like myself had done the same for thousands of years, right here, where I walked.
Later, hiking along the sweeping volcanic ridges of the Diamond Craters lava flow area to the east of the refuge, weaving took on a more metaphorical register for me. As I walked, with increasing deliberation and attention through all that distance, omnipresent snow-blown Steens Mountain popped up out of the rolling sage desert to the south like a slumped beast. It seemed to have its back to me — or was that just the rolling indifference of its ongoing face? Fetishist that I am, every mountain in the desert seems to me, at some point, to be an impossible head, a planted skull, dense with all that implausible time coalesced as rock interior: the inorganic mind, a secret brain of solid space. I know this fetishism to be ridiculous and solipsistic, but it also holds a place for the mountain beyond whatever I could ever experience of it through the limits of my body. I guess I want to believe that my fetishism brackets its autonomy, its liberty, as Diane says about the plants. In this way I can imagine its thereness as something totally without me.
It’s possible that this makes me not all that different from the fetishists who occupied the refuge — instead of the Constitution, I had the absence or the presence of the mountain, a transcendent power so deep in the world it’s outside the world, presiding with an indifference beyond sovereignty, over my fantasy ritual of weaving myself into vanishment. Because I felt that’s what I was doing, weaving myself away. Straight ahead to the west, the lakes of the refuge and its swaying grasslands and marshes fanned out, while to my right rose the snowy foothills and mountains where tiny video Finicum had leapt from his truck and met his white sovereign fate in the violent arms of the law.
Moving through that big western silence, as my posture improved with the deliberation and attentiveness of my stride, it seemed I could be reeds woven into space, that the walking was a weaving of myself as movement into that landscape, so that eventually, if I walked with the proper care and reverence, on the other side of it, the thing called I, a simple strand of material in the wind, would be finally, truly pulled through. Then only landscape and distance would be left, there where I was not: in the magic basket of my vanishment.
Of course, the problem is that I still seem to be here — right now, for example, with you; I’m no more gone than the day I was born. Maybe this was the ultimate problem for Finicum — that there is no way out of this palimpsest of relation — culture, society, history, whatever — without a final leap into death: maybe death is what he meant, in the end, by freedom. The last chapter of Finicum’s novel, Only By Blood and Suffering, is actually called “Freedom.” The book ends with the death of its hero.
I got back in my car and headed south toward and around Steens. As I was crossing a pass to the west of the mountain, I startled a big herd of antelope. They ran from the road to a safe distance and then turned and stared back while I stood next to my car. It grew windless, mad quiet for a moment, and I could hear my nerves singing in my flesh as the antelope and I faced off for a few seconds, before they turned their heads back to grazing.
An hour or so later I arrived at the Alvord Desert, around the other side of the mountain, where I leapt from the car and ran out onto the hard, sun-cracked playa — the waxy cake of the lake floor. I ran. I turned around. I turned again. There was Steens, to the west and north now, and to the east a hard ring of shimmering blue buttes. I imagined walking straight out into it forever as I began to do some more “weaving,” walking on the baked land with eyes closed into the sun, now above Steens, with slow and then slower deliberation, and then stopping in one of the deeper creases of silence. The wind was gone again. The sun was on my eyelids; it was gold here in the dark; my eyeballs felt cradled in the glowing folds of their lids. The humming of my body was back, it was a thick yellow buzz now. I pictured “me” as an outline traced by the bodies of bees and opened my eyes again to see Steens — looking down right at me — right through me, and away.
Back in California, when I next spoke with Jarvis on the phone, I was eager to ask him about the power of Steens that I felt I had experienced so intensely on my last day in its field. I don’t really know what kind of answer I expected, but it was different from the answer I got. He said, about the mountain, “I just see them up there, our people, camped out, hunting, gathering. They are up there. So the power is not any different from any other place for me. We were everywhere, you know. We might’ve been on Steens on Thursday, but who knows where we’ll be tomorrow.” Here was land as family again, an entirely different kind of fetishism from my own. I wanted the mountain as some kind of heteronymous force — with enough attractive power in its field to pull my insides out, and turn me into a ring of bees or weave me into space. Jarvis needed something else — something calmer and bigger than what I needed. What can I do, I am in love with the desert, for better or for worse. He just wanted to be there, with them, and he was.
“Hey,” he continued, “I got something for your article.” It turned out that he and Charlotte and some others had gone out to the refuge that week — the FBI had invited the tribe to be the first civilians back onto it. They hadn’t been allowed to get too close to the crime scenes, but they’d gone up on a slope by the now iconic fire-watch tower that had been converted into a sniper post during the occupation. And they’d built a little pit and a fire and done smudging with sage of all who were present, including a few curious FBI agents. I wish I’d witnessed the tribe blessing the federal men of violence who, at least this time, had lived up to the obligations in all the broken federal treaties Charlotte had cited to protect Indians from the incursions and abuses of bad white men. “We prayed for their families and for their safe passage home, and we prayed for Finicum and his family too — you know we didn’t want that to happen.” And they blessed the refuge, he said. “And I sang a song.” “What kind of song?” I asked. “A victory song,” he chuckled. “You know, it was like I said in the beginning at the news conference. We were here before you got here, we’ll be here when you’re gone.”
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