In case any of us missed it, four White people continue to “occupy” Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. This so-called “occupation” should not be confused with the Occupy Movement, which drew attention to economic inequality for 99% of population and is now connected to the rise in popularity of Bernie Sanders.
The wildlife refuge “occupiers,” however, are very unlikely supporters of Sanders’ presidential aspirations. Instead, these self-proclaimed “patriots” are more closely aligned with the 1% in their self-interested private goal to open up protected public lands for ranchers to graze their livestock wherever desired. Not totally surprising, the anti-government rhetoric of the militias at Malheur can be traced to the long reach of the billionaire Koch brothers.
For a moment, let’s consider the label “patriots” that Malheur invaders gave themselves. Stepping back in history – way back – maybe they are patriots in the sense that they are continuing a colonial project to remove any Native American indigenous claims to their ancestral lands. The ideology of patriotism has its origins in patriarchy and signals to male citizens to unite for the patria, or fatherland. As one of the “occupiers” put it, “The only way to win a war is to kill enough of the enemy that they do not want to fight anymore.” The colonial war continues for these patriots.
As nearly anyone living in the settler colonies of the United States and Canada knows by simply looking around and noticing the near absence of any large pockets of indigenous populations, the “patriotic” colonial wars were quite effective. Even the U.S. Senate has acknowledged this:
“Since the first European settlers arrived on this continent, Indians have lost 97 percent of their land and their population has been decimated by military assaults and fatal disease. These attacks were also designed to rob Indians of their very identity, pushing them to relinquish their language, arts and religion.”
Canada for its part admitted last year through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report that government and religious boarding schools for Indigenous children resulted in “cultural genocide.”
One aspect of patriotism involves asserting imperial authority and status over other people and their lands. Living in an empire, we can find plenty of modern examples of this kind of patriotism: military excursions into Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and a very long list of covertly overthrown elected governments who disagree with U.S. foreign policy and the interests of the 1%. For the armed militias at Malheur, patriotism serves as a settler-colony “just war” to defend their families from a federal government they consider illegitimate and to secure lands they believe belong to them.
For more than 800 years Christian doctrine proclaimed, according to British scholar Andrew Vincent, “the religious duty of citizens was to render themselves vulnerable to death for their patria.” Maybe that is how these patriots religiously understand themselves. As of today, the remaining four militias members have spent 40 days and 40 nights at Malheur, a figure that appears frequently in the Christian Bible to signify troubling times of hardship.
Rather than writing off the Malheur militias as crazies, best to see them in a context of history and current anti-federal government politics. For now, though, I’ll hold off to another day to further place this event within what the Europeans originally meant when they “discovered” a geographic location new to them, such as what is today the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.