A group of self-styled "militiamen" made headlines over the weekend when they took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters building in eastern Oregon's Harney Basin. They are evidently led by Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher known for his 2014 standoff with the federal government (over unpaid grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management). They say they are acting on behalf of Dwight and Steven Hammond, father and son of a local ranching family, who were sentenced to five years in prison for setting a fire on BLM land after the Ninth Circuit upheld the mandatory minimum for arson on federal lands. By various accounts, the fire was ostensibly set to clear invasive plants, or as a "backfire" (or "controlled burn") to keep a brush-fire from spreading to their property. But the Justice Department press release on the sentencing portrays a reckless act intentionally designed as a provocation to the feds. In any case, the Hammonds don't seem too enthusiastic about the action taken on their behalf. The right-wing militant Idaho 3 Percent was instrumental in the take-over, according to an early account on Central Oregon's KTVZ.
A sympathetic right-wing website, The Last Refuge, provides an historical outline of the conflict over the lands in question, beginning: "The Harney Basin (were [sic] the Hammond ranch is established) was settled in the 1870’s. The valley was settled by multiple ranchers and was known to have run over 300,000 head of cattle… In 1908 President Theodor [sic] Roosevelt, in a political scheme, create [sic] an 'Indian reservation' around the Malheur, Mud & Harney Lakes and declared it 'as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds'. Later this 'Indian reservation' (without Indians) became the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge." In other words, the land was not "settled" before white ranchers arrived, and the "Indian reservation" (in scare quotes, of course) was a scam to establish federal control of the area. The names of the Harney Basin's indigenous peoples are not even mentioned.
Indian Country Today Media Network, as you might guess, portrays it rather differently. The Malheur Indian Reservation was actually established in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant for the Northern Paiute. White settler encroachment on the reservation resulted in the Bannock War of 1878, which ended with the surrender of the Paiutes and Bannocks, and their "removal" to the Yakama Reservation in Washington Territory. The Burns Paiute Reservation, a tiny patch of land in the north of the basin, is a surviving fragment of the original reservation. The rest of it seems to have wound up in the hands of private ranchers, the BLM and the Wildlife Refuge—which is what Teddy Roosevelt actually established.
But the Bundys and their followers want the feds out entirely, and assert that the only lawful authority in the area is Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who they have petitioned to take the Hammonds into "protective custody" from the US marshals. In the 2014 standoff, Cliven Bundy claimed that federal agents had no authority in Nevada. He now claims the same of Oregon, stating: "United States Justice Department has NO jurisdiction or authority within the State of Oregon."
Yet media images show the "militiamen" draping American flags all over the occupied headquarters. "Patriotism" wedded to wacky pseudo-constitutional theories about the federal government having no authority or being illegitimate is a perennial irony of the politics of secessionism in the United States. Making all too clear that behind the idealistic rhetoric is a fundamentally undemocratic agenda to privatize public lands and their natural resources.