#YallQaeda and #YeeHawd: A Ranchers’ Rebellion in the Age of Terrorism

For many it may be a bright new year, but for anti-government protesters the long holiday weekend was an opportunity to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon and to revisit a very old conversation. These protesters believe the federal government is overreaching its power by owning, or at the very least managing, public land. No federal employees were present when the protesters arrived, so as of yet, this has been a peaceful, but well-armed act of civil disobedience or terrorism, depending on which way your Twitter feed tends to bend.

The events in Oregon are a headline-grabbing, but not unexpected reprisal of incidents in southern Nevada in 2014, when Cliven Bundy instigated an armed standoff with federal agents who were attempting to impound his cattle. The cast of characters is largely unchanged: federal officials, local officials, the Bundy family (namely, three of Cliven's sons), ranchers-turned-militiamen, nonranching militiamen, and a nervous rural community. I consider the protest in Burns a second act not only because of the actors involved or the substance of their complaints. Rather, I want to suggest that the domain of pastoral ethics set the stage for both Nevada and Oregon, even as the outcome of both standoffs will likely have more to do with how we imagine domestic terrorism than American agriculture.

The Hammond Family

On January 4, Dwight Lincoln Hammond, Jr., 73, and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, 46, began (or, if you like, resumed) five-year prison sentences. Their convictions on charges of arson are not as straightforward as any one side would make it out to be. The Hammonds’ defense: in two separate incidents, Dwight and Steven were conducting controlled burns to protect their grazing land for their cattle and their home. In one case they were protecting it from an invasive plant species, and in another they were back burning to protect it from an active wildfire. At the forefront of their defense are the pastoralist ethics that I was raised to appreciate (or, in this case, at least recognize). That is, the fires were set to defend livestock, land, and kin.

During my doctoral work at Rice University, I did my best to absorb James Faubion’s reinterpretation of Foucauldian ethical systems. For my own dissertation, I described a model of the three primary ethical domains of pastoralists and then populated that model with ethnographic data from my own life and from formal fieldwork in farming, ranching, and rodeo. My conclusion was that a good life for most pastoralists consists in managing the symbiotic relationship between land stewardship, animal husbandry, and kinship. A good life in pastoralism is one that finds a balance between these three domains. For example, there may or may not be room for the endangered desert tortoise or the Arapaho tribal member when securing grasslands that feed cattle to support family.

In the context of the modern U.S. West, this ethical model has had to account for a specific environment (originally ecologically diverse and very arid) and governmentality (originally quite militant and offering protection to pastoralist projects), both of which have evolved dramatically since World War II. With irrigation, expanded bureaucracy, food demand, and conservation politics as new realities, the once-clear context of the U.S. pastoralist system has become harder to parse.

So what does the prosecution’s case against the Hammonds look like? According to testimony given in 2014, the fires that the Hammonds set were done so recklessly, resulting in the burning of over one hundred acres of federal land. Moreover, the Hammonds endangered the lives of wildland firefighters and may have been used the whole affair to cover up a deer poaching incident. While pastoralist ethics does not sanction endangering firefighters, I suggest that they can account for killing an overabundance of deer on important grazing land.

In any case, the protesters now occupying the wildlife refuge in Oregon argue, among other things, that the Hammonds have been harassed because of their refusal to sell their lands to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They also cite the BLM’s decisions to revoke some of the Hammonds’ grazing permits and to increase their grazing fees as an overreach of federal power. Cliven Bundy has done a thorough job of listing the BLM’s perceived threats to the Hammond family. However, the Hammonds are not endorsing the militiamen’s occupation of the wildlife refuge and, by all reports, turned themselves in peacefully.

The Bundy Family

As mentioned above, Cliven Bundy received national attention in 2014 as he took a stand with armed supporters to defend his nine hundred or so cattle from attempts to remove and impound the herd on charges of trespassing on federal lands without grazing permits. Bundy has refused to pay for his grazing permits since 1993. Over time, he argued that he was abiding by the laws of the sovereign state of Nevada and no longer recognized the U.S. government. By 2014, Bundy owed over $1 million in fees and fines. Previous proposals to impound his herd were dismissed under fear that there would be a violent response.

During the spring of 2014, BLM rangers were closing off nearby federal lands to conduct a roundup of all trespassing cattle. Most of the cattle wore the Bundy brand. Bundy’s public appeal to states’ rights won him alliances with citizen militia groups, who showed up at his side in late March and early April. Protesters and federal agents were pointing guns at each other for hours at a time during the four-day standoff. Tasers were used, police dogs were kicked, impromptu roadblocks were established, and a few arrests were made, but in the end, Cliven Bundy essentially beat the U.S. government. His cattle were returned, the permits remain unpaid, and we can only assume that Bundy cattle continue to eat public grass. Although his call for all U.S. sheriffs to disarm the “federal bureaucrat” was unmet, the Battle of Bunkerville (as it was called) emboldened the rebel rancher movement. Frankly, I am surprised that it took this long for another incident to make national news.

A devout Mormon, Cliven Bundy has fourteen children and over fifty grandchildren, and it is his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy who have led the occupation of the Oregon wildlife refuge. A protest rally was organized on Sunday, January 3, to bring people’s attention to the Hammond case and to demand their release. When the rally was over, Ammon Bundy led a contingency to the wildlife refuge in a quick and organized fashion. He and his companions used social media to draw more supporters. Although Bundy asked them to bring arms, he has also told reporters that the group are not terrorists. Twitter users have been quick to poke fun at the incident with hashtags like #YallQaeda and #YeeHawd. Supporters of the movement are left with old standbys like #FreedomFighters.

An Anthropological Take

At this point, it is unclear what, specifically, the protesters demand. Law enforcement apparently plans to wait them out for a time, although they have threatened to cut off electricity to the compound. Some local ranchers and activists have joined the cause, but others have asked why a group of Nevadans have set the battleground in their backyard. Farmers, ranchers, and the rural communities they call home are neither unified behind these groups nor united in their opposition to them. But the disbelief and derision expressed by those outside of ranch country strikes me as a symptom of the social distance from where our food comes from in the United States, as well as the many faces of environmentalism.

If an authentic wave of anti-government sentiment is to emanate outward from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and especially if it is to speak in the name of ranchers, I suggest that it will do so on the terrain of pastoralist ethics: doing what is best for livestock, land, and kin. The Bundy family and their followers are not rallying around the secret filming of abused dairy cattle, or the battle between California farmers over water rights, or child workers picking berries. These things do happen, but they are not the stage that the protesters/terrorists in Oregon have chosen. Instead, the stage is a righteous battle over how to best manage the American family farm and ranch on public land.

If control over federal lands was relinquished for these rebel ranchers to manage, would that be enough? I suspect not. Ryan Bundy operates a construction company in Utah, while Ammon Bundy manages a valet car fleet in Phoenix. Neither man has the daily duties of the good pastoralist. Buth both men do understand the power of the corresponding rhetoric (and the unfamiliarity of outsiders with it). The Bundy brothers are no strangers to the ranching world, and they know that the volume of anti-government rhetoric can be much louder when it is identified with the much-mythicized rancher. Yet they and their supporters are more generally concerned with the relationship between federal government and daily conduct: ranching, here, is the occasion for critique.

Here, at the crossroads of subjectivation and governmentality, the rhetorical frame of managing families, herds, and acreages has real power. Farmers and ranchers long served as the ideal locus of national identity, and any outcome to the standoff in Oregon will find a logical place in that undeniably violent history. The denouement will either be cast as another federal intervention into the management of the American West, or it will be another issuance of exceptionalism for the Anglo-American agriculturalist.

How, in closing, might hashtags like #YallQaeda and #YeeHawd change the imagined face of domestic terrorism in the United States? Can the label of terrorist stick to the American farmer or rancher? Or, if not, what language do we have for civil disobedience that carries weapons and leaps to the unsolicited rescue of any agrarian at odds with the feds? I suspect that most Americans are not prepared to apply the label of terrorist to those who look like the heroes of a Hollywood Western. Our terrorist imaginary has a different face in mind. Instead, given how distant issues of rural livelihood are from most Americans’ daily experiences, I worry that we will content ourselves with being amused by the spectacle in Oregon even as ranch country drifts further away from what any pastoralist would consider a good life.

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This post was originally published in the Commentary section of the Cultural Anthropology website, which was retired in June 2016. All Commentary posts were reclassified under the new Dispatches section; their URLs remain unchanged.